Amid the white noise of the lead-up to Sunday's Grammy ceremony, Josh Ritter slipped in town on Tuesday to perform at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre and remind us of the basics — that a good song and a guitar or two, or three, can go a long way.
“Such joy,” a member of the audience remarked when the show was over.
There's no better description, although the singer-songwriter and novelist does address such dark themes like failed love and the apocalypse in his music.
Ritter opened with the reflective “Best for the Best,” which includes a line: “If the best is for the best, then the best is unkind.” But for the most part. the evening's mood was upbeat and intimate.
He is calling this his acoustic tour. No drums or big backing, just longtime bandmate Zack Hickman and guitarist Josh Kaufman to play a variety of strings and keyboards.
A storyteller with a poet's soul, Ritter has attracted all sorts of fans over the years, including writer Stephen King, who called Ritter's “The Animal Years” the best album of 2006. Liner notes on other CDs have been written by novelist Dennis Lehane and even filmmaker Cameron Crowe. Though he has a devoted audience, for the most part, Ritter seems to mostly fly under the radar.
He clearly enjoyed playing at the historic Wilshire Ebell, with its elegance and wonderful acoustics, and a number of times ventured out to the edge of the stage in front of the microphone to sing. Once, on his knees for the song “Wolves,” he did a soft howl with the audience responding in kind.
Throughout the evening, his cohorts would come and go, bringing tasteful accompaniment, but the focus remained on Ritter and his songs, many of them injected with a sly wit and most from his last two albums, “The Beast in Its Tracks” and “So Runs the World.”
Before his second to last song of the set, he talked about what an incredible life he's had, but admitted he had gone through a bad patch (he split from his wife in 2011). He then told a story of how it all went away one evening after writing a song and watching a sunset on the iconic Manhattan skyline from the roof of his Brooklyn apartment while having a beer and thinking about L.A.
He followed with the song “Joy To You Baby” singing, “Joy to the many/ And joy to the few/ And joy to you baby/ Joy to me too/ Tonight, tonight, tonight.”
The 37-year-old Ritter then ended with a rousing version of “Kathleen,” an early song and a crowd favorite.
Though he missed a few of my favorites — “Nightmares,” “Lark” and “Change of Time” — he had plenty of other good ones throughout the evening, including “Folk Bloodbath,” ”The Curse,” and even included a nice cover of Ricky Nelson's “I'm Not Afraid.”
Opening for Ritter was South African-born and now Colorado-based Gregory Alan Isakov, whose latest album is “The Weatherman.” Isakov's 40-minute set proves he is someone to watch.
For the final number of his encore, Ritter had Isakov and his two bandmates join him for Ritter's “Wait for Love.” Eventually, all six musicians moved to the edge of the stage where the audience joined in the chorus: “Sometimes, babe, we all wait for love.”
Follow Rob Lowman on Twitter: @roblowman1