By Jeff Labrecque
Updated May 20, 2010 at 05:21 PM EDT

Image Credit: Brian StowellThere’s nothing cynical or contemptuous about Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band, and at New York’s Town Hall last night, the Idaho-bred folk-rocker bounded on stage like an exuberant puppy freed from his leash. In an elegant 124-minute show, the earnest singer with the earthy voice and hyper-literate lyrics delighted what sometimes felt like an intimate gathering of friends. Ritter reveled in Town Hall’s history, expressing awe at the legendary performers, like Paul Robeson and Igor Stravinsky, who’d helped make it famous, but by the end of the night, the house was his.

It didn’t start out that way. Despite Ritter’s buoyancy, his first song, “Change of Time,” from his latest album, So Runs the World Away, suffered a few mechanical glitches that stunted some early momentum. It’s not unusual for Ritter’s shows to begin quietly anyway, a reflection more of the mild-not-wild NPR listeners in his audience than the band’s fervent energy. After the fourth song, “Folk Bloodbath” (“It’s a comedy,” deadpanned Ritter), he acknowledged the staid setting and warned the crowd not to get too comfortable in their velvet red theater seats. “This is Town Hall and everyone is wearing tuxedos and drinking martinis,” he joked. “But it would really help if we could all scream like … like….” “Like wild banshees!” volunteered a voice in the dark. That seemed to do the trick. The band quickly launched into “Right Moves,” a rollicking number from 2007’s album, The Historical Conquest of Josh Ritter.

From there, the band quickly put to rest any concerns that songs from the new album lacked the rock ‘n’ roll oomph of Historical Conquest. (Only “Rattling Locks” landed flat, judging by its unspoken designation as the show’s “bathroom song.”) Stomping to a thunderous beat, Ritter added an urgency to “The Remnant” that the recorded version lacks, transforming it into a pounding, crowd-pleasing delight. Midway through the show, he revisited his gorgeous, winding rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” and then showcased some real vocal versatility with an acoustic version of “In the Dark.”

Ritter has said that he plays “rock ‘n’ roll with lots of words,” and he found the inspiration for So Runs in Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe and, in the case of the melancholic “The Curse,” the Egyptian Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So it was appropriate but no less surprising when actor Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) ambled on stage before “Another New World” for a mesmerizing reading of Poe’s tragic poem, “Annabel Lee.” Simply epic.

After delivering a knockout version of “To the Dogs or Whoever” to close the set, the band returned for a three-song encore, highlighted by a tender version of “Moon River.” An accomplished storyteller and a versatile live entertainer who makes himself at home in any room, Ritter successfully swept aside any Town Hall stodginess, chugging an entire beer at one point during the encore. For Ritter, whose thoughtful lyrics open doors to hallowed halls but whose musical heart and soul reside in front of the neon beer signs of a pub, it was the perfect symbol for a memorable night.

(Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band perform again tonight at Manhattan’s Town Hall.)

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