Last night, in the center of downtown Buffalo, a 135 year-old church seemed to wake from a lengthy slumber to take some of it's most lively breaths in nearly a century. Providing the life force for such an awakening, were the musical tidings of Josh Ritter and his Royal City Band.
Having seen Josh Ritter perform on several occasions, most recently this past Valentine's Day, I knew well of his abilities to capture and intrigue a crowd. However, his aptitude for seizing an audience's attention was most effectively on display last night. From the intimate notes of a solo performance of "Idaho", to the foot stomping, hand clapping, raucous "To The Dogs of Whoever" that closed the show, the crowd of 500 slowly melded into one beating unit. A performance so captivating, it led my Dad to call it "One of the best concerts I've ever seen."
The setting for such an event was Asbury Hall at Babeville on Deleware Avenue in downtown Buffalo. Babeville, the affectionate moniker given by owner and Buffalo native Ani DiFranco, is housed at the site of the Deleware Asbury Methodist Church. Built in 1876, this historical landmark fell into disrepair in the 1980's and 90's. Facing demolition, Righteous Babe Records president Scot Fisher and Ani DiFranco proposed renovating the Church as a multipurpose entertainment venue in 1999. The result is a simply breathtaking concert venue. From the refurbished hardwood floors and railings, the the pews in the balcony, to the stain glass windows lining the outward walls, Asbury Hall is a magnificent place to see a concert. The view from virtually any vantage point is unobscured, allowing audience members to spread out throughout the floor. Downstairs, the Ninth Ward is a beautifully crafted lounge, providing concert goers a place to socialize before the show. Having returned to Buffalo from the DC area, this is exactly the kind of concert venue that has been noticeably absent from Western New York area for years. Mere blocks from the city's nightlife hub that is Chippewa Street, I can only hope that Asbury Hall at Babeville continues to grow in popularity. Asbury Hall has the potential of becoming a consistent destination for all kinds of national music acts.
After taking in the venue's details and personality, the night hit its first strides when opening act Sean Rowe took the stage. Rowe is an outstanding songwriter, who gets right down to business upon taking the stage. He too captivated the audience with his rhythmic guitar style and deep voice. His performance of "Jonathan" off his newest release Magic, and his closing song prompted an enthusiastic response from the crowd. It's not often that an opening act has the entire audience hanging on every word and note, but that's exactly what Sean Rowe accomplished.
Now to main event of the evening. Assessing the crowd as we stood in line, it was clear that Josh Ritter already had some loyal fans. Many held his newly published novel Bright's Passage as they waited for him to take the stage. Others seemed a little unfamiliar, as this was Ritter's first time in Buffalo. As the night proceeded, the line between unfamiliar and die hard fans became blurred. Ritter took the stage at approximately 9PM accompanied only by his acoustic guitar. From their he performed a hushed version of "Idaho" an homage to his home state.
Following "Idaho" Josh Ritter's Royal City Band joined him onstage for crowd favorites such as "Right Moves" and "Wolves". At the end of "Wolves" Ritter fell to his knees and howled along with the crowd before singing the last verse seemingly to the moon. Those familiar with Ritter's work know of his incredibly complex and dynamic lyrical style. Many songs include references to the Bible, and to angels. As one can imagine, these allusions to religion took on an extra meaning as the concert took place in an old church. One such song "Harrisburg" was a definite crowd pleaser, though it may not have been for the religious references. Toward the end of the song, bassist Zach Hickman sang a rousing portion of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game", which the crowd thoroughly enjoyed.
The highlights from last night are almost too numerous to list. There's "The Curse", which is waltz-like song about an Egyptian mummy brought back to life by his affection toward a female archaeologist. My Dad having heard this song for the first time described it perfectly, saying that each and every note was deliberate and placed perfectly. The midpoint of the show consisted of a brief solo set from Josh Ritter consisting of the beautifully encouraging, glass half-full "Still Beating", the hilarious "Galahad", and perhaps the most brilliant post apocalyptic love song ever written, "The Temptation of Adam." "Galahad" and "The Temptation of Adam" both are excellent samples of Ritter's lyrical ability to tell a story. "Galahad" tells the tale of Sir Galahad's quest to drink from the Holy Grail, as an angel questions his decision to leave Earth for Heaven. Ritter asked for all the lights to be turned off for the song "The Temptation of Adam", a love song with a missile silo serving as the backdrop. The protagonist in the song, considers pressing the "great big button" to end to world, if it means he gets to stay with his love for the rest of time.
The regular set drew to an end with the juvenile love song "Kathleen" which included an impromptu wave that swept through the audience, and "Change of Time" which ended with Josh singing the chorus, as the crowd sang "Rough Seas" back. It was magical hearing the entire crowd singing in unison. As the set ended, everyone rose to their feet. Stomps were heard from the balcony as the audience beckoned Ritter to come back with his incredibly talented band.
Their wish granted, Josh Ritter took the stage for the encore. Much like he began the show, Ritter came only his acoustic guitar for an unplugged cover of Bruce Springsteen's "The River". Every tuned in ear hung on each note played. As the song ended, the band rejoined Ritter on stage for "Real Long Distance", and "To the Dogs or Whoever". At one point I looked to my right, and in this eclectic crowd ranging widely in age, I saw a man no younger than 70 dancing I dare say "wildly" to the last song of the night. Josh Ritter had done it again. He had every last one of us.
What an amazing night! I knew full well that Josh Ritter would put on a good show, but seeing him do so with my Dad made this night special on a personal level. Music and our love for it is something my Dad and I have in common. It was a blast to turn him on to something new and spend time with him. Thanks to Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band as well as everyone at Asbury Hall for putting on such an amazing show!