Singer and songwriter Josh Ritter brought his trademark charm and boyish grin to Kentucky Country Day's cozy, 380-seat theater Saturday night for a solo acoustic show. The lovely proscenium theater is a new addition to the KCD campus, and concert-goers are lucky that the school is sharing this facility with the Louisville community by presenting regional and national artists on its stage. My advice is to put the KCD Theater Facebook page on your watch list, because shows that you don't want to miss will likely sell out on the day tickets are released. (I missed out on Iris Dement by being too late.) While you have to be quick on the trigger, you'll be rewarded by intimate performances in a comfortable setting (beer, wine and refreshments are available in the lobby).
Bhi Bhiman opened for Ritter. The Sri-Lankan-American Bhiman lives in the San Francisco Bay area and is obviously steeped in the American folk music tradition, switching effortlessly from witty ballads about Walmart into traditional Blues and Gospel songs. A very able guitarist, Bhiman's clarion voice is his standout instrument. But the night belonged to Ritter, who always draws from a loyal base of knowledgable fans who need very little coaxing to join in the choruses.
I last saw Ritter with his full band shortly after his last record debuted, the excellent So Runs the World Away. Ritter with just his guitar is even more impressive; whether it's his old footstompers like "Good Man" and "Harrisburg" or a ghostly ballad like "The Curse," Ritter is nimble-fingered on the guitar. He drew generously from his latest album, including "Lark," "Rattling Locks," "Folk Bloodbath," and the beautifully epic "Another New World." On the dying strains of this song, there were audible "wows" from the audience and a breath of awed silence before the first burst of applause. That is how good he is.
When KCD Headmaster Bradley Lyman, a self-proclaimed John Prine fanatic, introduced Ritter, he noted that his ah-ha moment with Ritter was hearing him perform Prine's "Mexican Home" better than John Prine! Lyman went from never having heard of him, to scrambling to book him for the new theater. Ritter thoughtfully saved the Prine cover for his encore, along with the seasonally appropriate "Snow is Gone."
Ritter is the consummate performer, personable and easy-going with the audience, weaving sometimes surreally comic tales into his stage banter and recalling local connections -- playing the Rud in his early days and "the biggest bug I've ever seen in my life" in the Headliners parking lot. His music overflows with lovingly crafted words and stories, and it's little surprise that his love of language has spilled over into a budding career as a novelist -- his first work of fiction, Bright's Passage, is due this spring.