But in all this time, he's never played Spokane. Until this week. "It's going to be really fun," he told The Inlander last Friday with characteristic eagerness. "It's going to be really great." His performance at the Festival at Sandpoint last year became an Idaho love-in, with friends and family in attendance and a post-show meet-and-greet line that lasted for hours. If that show is any indication, his Spokane debut could last until next month.
But that's only half the reason he -- and we -- are excited, because on four nights of this leg of the tour he's sharing a double bill with Andrew Bird, possibly the only other new-guard singer-songwriter around whose cunning and wit match Ritter's. This is huge.
The 35-year-old, who got his start playing fiddle for the Squirrel Nut Zippers, has now released seven studio albums, each more nuanced and lovely than before. An enthralling performer who frequently loops his own expert violin, guitar, glockenspiel and unearthly whistle to create huge, majestic sounds, he made converts of Nickel Creek fans when he opened for the newgrass trio at the Big Easy here three years ago. He's only gained momentum since, with the critical success of 2005's The Mysterious Production of Eggs and the huge, sweeping waves of last year's Armchair Apocrypha.
The announcement that the master showman (and his band) would be sharing the Bing Crosby Theater's stage with Idaho's greatest songwriter (and his band) sent shivers of excitement through Spokane's burgeoning singer-songwriter scene a few months back. This week, we asked three of these local musicians -- and Josh Ritter himself -- to tell us why this might just be the biggest indie extravaganza Spokane has seen in years.
KARLI FAIRBANKS on JOSH RITTER
Karli Fairbanks' last full-length album, Bitter Blue, was released in the fall to critical acclaim by the local and regional music press. (Out There Monthly called her "nearly perfect" and music blog Song, By Toad wondered if there was anything better in life than "a pretty woman playing a banjo.") She spoke to us from Portland where she's working on a new recording with Rose City troubadour Briana Paleta. Visit myspace.com/KarliFairbanks.
The first time Josh Ritter really blew me away was when [a friend] sat me down and played "Temptation of Adam" (a song about romance in a wartime missile silo) in [his] living room and we listened to it straight through. I was like, I need to re-listen to everything I've ever heard of this guy. I'd heard a lot of his stuff before, but that song really turned the corner for me. It's how he captures emotions in his songs -- that's not sappy or whiney or overt. It's extremely subtle and carries you through the songs and gets you to feel things that you wouldn't expect to. He carries you through his progression. Like "Kathleen," how he uses dynamics and instrumentation to create a really fun, catchy song that you wouldn't forget. It really gets under your skin. That's my favorite song.
I think as a performer, when I saw him live, [he] made me think about having fun when you play music. Just enjoying the thrill of music and not being afraid to show that to your audience. It was a unique show [at the Festival at Sandpoint last year]. It was really exciting for him and the band. He's an extremely captivating performer and really loveable. Some people, you'd be afraid to talk them afterward. After he played, there was a booth next to the stage where people could line up. There was a line throughout the rest of the evening of, like, 500 people. He hugged every girl, shook every guy's hand and met every single person.
I can see him becoming one of those solid songwriters that throughout the years is creating these songs that will last forever. Not just hits. More timeless albums. In our era, in our generation, [he's] kind of like our Bob Dylan.
DANE UELAND on ANDREW BIRD
Dane Ueland was voted one of six buzzworthy performers in The Inlander's Local Music issue in May. A talented songwriter, Ueland accompanies himself on guitar, mandolin and piano (among other instruments) and is frequently joined by fellow Whitworthian Andrea Lavelle. Visit myspace.com/DaneMakesMusic.
The first time I ever heard Andrew Bird was two summers ago. I was living in Bellingham with a guy who had just gotten Mysterious Production of Eggs and he had been playing "Fake Palindromes" on repeat in his room -- blasting it. I took the CD from him and didn't take it out of my stereo all summer. I kind of fell in love with him, though, with "A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left." With the line where he's asking the panel, "Why are we alive? ... You're what happens when two substances collide." The guy really loves the English language. I was busting out my thesaurus. His subject choices are pretty ominous -- the decline of civilization, and science, and determinism and human futility -- [but] he's kind of shrugging it off with his trademark lightheartedness [when] it's usually doom and gloom. That song or "Measuring Cups." Those two songs -- about science and being disillusioned by how non-magical we are: what are we supposed to do, being just animals? -- the way he delivers that subject using a childlike air. That's what made me a huge fan.
But the thing I always admired about him is his creative vocal style, where he delivers really confident melodies and isn't afraid to fill a few measures with bum bum bum bum. It's a great balance of music and lyrical talent, and he never downplays one for the other. [And] he's not just a lyrical guy. He's a professional whistler and an awesome violinist. How can you not love all that? The first time I heard that whistle, you couldn't have convinced me that wasn't a saw or something. I was just blown away by it. Then I learned he played the violin, too, and I was ready to have his children. If that's possible.
MARK WARD on JOSH RITTER
A finalist in the Susquehanna Music and Arts Festival's national songwriting competition earlier this year, Mark Ward is a hard-working (usually solo) performer who frequently surprises audiences by looping melodica lines while playing the guitar and kick drum. He will be moving to Chicago in August to study music at Columbia College. Visit www.MarkWardmusic.
In the majority of music right now, there's a void of pure intellectual music -- of smart people making smart music and writing smart lyrics. And I think Josh Ritter is one of a handful of guys that is actually doing that right now. Lyrically, there's no one in the same group as [him]. The way he can take historical figures and intertwine them with his songs and not make it sound cheesy. His Laurel and Hardy references -- they fit, and they make sense. It seems like it would be hard to get Laurel and Hardy into a song and make it work. But he does that.
My first big Josh Ritter moment was when I heard "Wings." The lyrics just blew me away. It was like a beautiful painting. It's got a lot of religious imagery in it, and it sounds very eerie, but with beautiful lyrics on top of it that describe these scenes of Jesus coming around the mountain on a train. The way he uses people and places in his songs -- it has a very Northwestern kind of vibe. He's taken the cities of Coeur d'Alene, Harrison and Wallace and made them a beautiful image, which is hard to do with Harrison and Wallace.
A lot of his more sparse, eerie songs -- like "Idaho" and "Wings" and "Wildfires" ... I've been trying to write a song like that. They're so affecting. Those are the type of songs where -- whatever I'm doing at the time, and they come on -- I get completely enthralled in them. In the sounds and the words and his voice, trying to visualize these images. His other songs are like that, too, but those... It's kind of like you grab the listeners' attention by being quiet.
JOSH RITTER on ANDREW BIRD
A native and current resident of Moscow, Idaho, Josh Ritter has been dubbed one of the world's best living songwriters by Paste magazine. He spoke to us from Boston, where he was preparing for the tour kickoff this week. Visit myspace.com/JoshRitter.
The thing that makes any good artist different is the belief in your own artistic vision -- your belief in yourself that what you have to offer is actually worth having. As things get successful or people listen to you more, there becomes a lot of pressure to change what you do or clean up what you do and make it more palatable. To move towards the middle. And I think that time and time again, you see people who make that decision and end up making music that is banal, just palatable. Andrew's never done that. Every record is different, and every record has its own vocabulary.
People are still trying to figure [him] out. There's so much music out there and people tend to stick it in the file cabinet under "Whatever." Initially, they'd stick him under "Guy Who Whistles and Plays Violin," and the next record comes and people have to readjust. That's the way that an actual career is built. It's easy to put something away that never changes. That's not the way it is with him. As success comes along, he hasn't gotten any less hungry.
Sometimes you hear [recorded] music and the tools on the table are different from the ones that made the clock. You're using tools you don't know how to use. And that's something that's always cool with his stuff. The range of instrumentation that he uses has grown, and the cast of people that he's used has changed and grown. There's a complexity. But his melodies have always been very simple and beautiful. Like Pete Seeger says, it takes genius to keep it simple. [Andrew's music] hasn't lost that charm. It still feels like he's speaking the same language. He's just using bigger words.
Josh Ritter and Andrew Bird at the Bing on Tuesday, July 22, at 8 pm. Tickets: $25. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.