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Josh Ritter & Dawn Landes / Wickenburg, AZ

If it were possible to wear out mp3s, I would be on my second or third set of Josh Ritter tracks. I started listening heavily to him during the last few months of my dissertation-writing, mining eMusic and iTunes for everything they had. For a while there, working meant making coffee, sitting down to write, and putting Josh Ritter, Richmond Fontaine, and Tom Waits on a loop. Since then, I’ve only grown to enjoy and admire Josh’s music more.

Ritter shows some of his influences and does wonderfully well by them (his cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” for example) but spending too much time on comparisons does injustice to the fact that he has a powerful storytelling voice all his own and has crafted some of the most evocative, compelling songs that I know. And the guy’s from Moscow, Idaho, which feeds my conviction that Westerners have something to say, after all. Getting all gushy, I’ll say that there’s something about his music that moves me tremendously.

Yesterday I got the chance to see him live for the first time, down in Wickenburg, AZ. The show? A benefit for a music-education nonprofit in Wickenburg, it was held on the patio of a local steakhouse/bar. Stackable chairs and a few bar tables — enough capacity for 50 people or so? — were arranged facing a diminutive plywood stage with a couple of mic stands. I had a pretty good feeling this was going to be cool. And it was. Also casual, friendly, intimate.

Dawn Landes started the show and would perform on and off with Josh throughout. I hit up Dawn’s web site before leaving FLG, so I had some vague notion of her music; she gets compared to Cat Power (I hear some Neko Case in there) and has toured with Hem (go get “Rabbit Songs” and “Eveningland” now. I can wait). In person, she has a wonderful, clear voice, and she played a series of engaging songs that fall somewhere between country (both alt- and straight-up) and folk. Two songs in, I knew where all of next months’ eMusic allotment is going — and had planned the gift CD orders. Sublime performer and songwriter.

Dawn Landes

After sitting in with Dawn for a couple of songs, and raffling off a technicolor guitar for the nonprofit, Josh Ritter took the stage. He opened with a grinning, bouncing storm through “Good Man,” and just kept on going. He played a number of my favorites (“Harrisburg” and “Temptation of Adam” among them), and could move the crowd every bit as deftly with a whisper as with a shout. Dawn joined him for a few numbers, and they closed the show together with an “encore” duet that ended with the entire crowd whistling our way through to the finale.

Josh Ritter

It was a thorough joy to be part of that small crowd, listening, laughing, cheering, and hooting for these great, great performers. The fun was amplified by — fundamentally constructed by, actually — the fact that Josh and Dawn also seemed to be having a great time.

In which I go all fanboy

After the show I managed to go over and say hello and thanks for such a wonderful event. I was going for a handshake, and got not one but two hugs from Josh, who appeared nothing but sincerely & boisterously exuberant over the whole event. Is he like that all the time? I have no idea — but man, it was fun. I’ll plan on more shows.

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