Photo: Jason Shane

Photo: Jason Shane

Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band swung through The Fox last Wednesday night as part of their 39-date North American tour in support of Ritter’s latest release, The Beast In Its Tracks. The show was a relatively intimate and subdued affair compared to other gigs at Oakland’s crown jewel venue, with seats brought in to fill the normally general admission lower level, and the upper half of the balcony behind curtains. But the mellower setup of the auditorium did not detract from what would be a evening of soaring emotional highs and lows, a gripping connection between a singer-songwriter and his doting audience, and the Bay Area live debut of several tracks off that most recent record.

L.A.’s Sea Wolf opened the evening with a set of mellow indie folk paced by frontman Alex Brown Church, who sings and plays acoustic guitar and is backed by the quartet of Lisa Fendelander (keyboards), Joey Ficken (drums), Scott Leahy (electric guitar), and Eliot Lorango (bass). Church led his compatriots through a batch of beautifully constructed and gripping tracks, interspersed with soaring vocal melodies and enveloped by a the aura created by Ficken’s intricate drum work. Sea Wolf’s night was highlighted by two tracks – “Old Friend” (the opener from 2012’s Old World Romance) and set closer “You’re A Wolf”. On the latter, the crowd finally came to life, bobbing to the song’s irresistible beat, before the band ended their set in a sea of unexpected reverb and feedback.

Shortly after nine o’clock, Ritter took the stage by himself, opening his set with “Idaho”, a lilting ode to his home state, with just the warmth of his voice and the gentle strum of his acoustic guitar filling the awestruck theater. As the song wound to its end, Ritter knelt down, singing into the microphone from a short distance below and adding a beautiful aura to an already stunningly gorgeous yet simple track. He succeeded in grabbing the audience’s attention with both a perfect rendition of a track that no doubt holds a place near and dear to his heart, as well as with his minimalistic theatrics.

Keyboardist Sam Kassirer then joined Ritter on stage for a sweet rendition of “Southern Pacifica” off 2010’s So Runs the World Away, before the rest of The Royal City Band joined their bandleader, with Austin Nevins on guitar, Zack Hickman manning the bass, Sam Kassirer on keys, and Liam Hurley behind the drumkit. Diving into “New Lover” off the latest record, the quintet began an evening that felt more like a revival than a indie folk gig, transcending the venue’s seating arrangement’s potentially tranquilizing effect on the audience.

Playing songs off each of Ritter’s studio records with the exception of his self-titled and self-released 1999 debut, the band’s main set was punctuated by some of their leader’s most widely loved tracks (“Snow Is Gone”, “Folk Bloodbath”, and closer “Change of Time”) as well as nine out of thirteen songs from The Beast In Its Tracks, including lead single “Joy To You Baby”. Highlights included drummer Hurley leading the crowd in a round of rousing hand-clapping at the outset of “Lilian, Egypt”, Ritter’s solo rendition of “The Temptation of Adam”, his duet with Hickman on “The Appleblossom Rag”, and an especially intimate moment on “In The Dark” where Ritter sang to the crowd sans mic, just a man and his voice (and a couple thousand rabid fans).

What is readily evident at any Ritter show is his (and his band’s) infectious joy. Clearly enjoying performing, he often can’t resist cracking a wide smile, both in reaction to his own songs and to the audience’s energy. Throughout the evening, Ritter gushed over the Fox’s stunning atmosphere, claiming it was the most beautiful venue the band had ever played, joking that the statues were made of pure gold and the stage covered in diamonds. He also reminisced about his first Bay Area gig many years ago at Brainwash.

After a short break following “Change of Time”, Ritter returned to the stage to punctuate the evening with a two track encore, starting with “Lights”, before the full band returned for “To the Dogs or Whoever”. The two starkly opposing tracks were an ideal way to end an evening full of emotional ebbs and flows, while ending on the high note of what is probably Ritter’s most recognizable song. The five-piece left the stage to a roaring round of approval from the audience, unable to be contained by the unfamiliar sight of seats at the Fox.

Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band – Setlist, March 20, 2013 at The Fox Theater, Oakland:
Southern Pacifica
New Lover
Third Arm
Evil Eye
Lillian, Egypt
The Curse
Joy to You Baby
The Temptation of Adam
In the Dark
Snow Is Gone
The Appleblossom Rag
Folk Bloodbath
In Your Arms Again
Good Man
Roll On
Right Moves
Change of Time

To the Dogs or Whoever