Return of Ritter 

Prodigal Idaho-grown musician comes home

The problem with Josh Ritter is that he writes songs his fans want to live in. He snares his audience at first chord, bundles them up for the journey and happily totes them off to follow Lillian Egypt through a romp in the Wild West, dive deep into the belly of a whale and then trail after him down to Bruce Springsteen's "The River." Fans eagerly nestle in to each story, laugh and sing along, but eventually, the tale ends, the husk falls away, and the silence is definite.

Until the next chapter, that is, when Ritter unleashes another sweeping scene--one complete end to end and yet merely a neat and picturesque capsule of a place that spills onto planes and sprawls into realms only Ritter knows.

At 32, the Moscow, Idaho, native says he's had a few big moments this year. He married, met Springsteen again--this time after the Boss' show in the Meadowlands--and did a live show in Central Park with the New York Pops featuring The Frames' Glen Hansard. Since his 2007 Boise concert, he's noticeably matured into someone who's confident in the limelight. He's perfected the art of a succinct interview, started a book club of sorts for his fans (because, he told BW, he and his fans both love to read so much that some of them--this reporter included--often give him books after shows), and expanded his orchestral tinkerings with violinist Hillary Hahn into full-blown collaborative symphonic shows.

From Ritter's home state, it's difficult to gauge just how far and wide his music has scattered his name. A pair of David Letterman appearances, a handful of NPR spotlights and an annual trek to Ireland, where he's gained considerable notoriety, provide measurable success, but it's amateur video of his Central Park show in June on YouTube that substantiates Idaho's hunch that Ritter is doing us proud out there. The audience overtakes him as he launches into the chorus of "Kathleen," the large crowd collectively soloing "I'll have you back by the break of day / I'm going your way anyway / If you'd like to come along, I'll be yours for a song," while the New York pops chime in from behind, providing the background with the intimate minutiae that rounds off a glimpse into Ritter's world.

Unlike Ritter's more political work on Animal Years or his more recent work on Historical Conquests (which opens with "To the Dogs or Whoever": "Oh bring me the love that can sweeten a sword / A boat that can love the rocks or the shore / The love of the iceberg reaching out for a wreck / Can you love me like the crosses love the nape of the neck?"), "Kathleen" is hardly an example of the sometimes obtuse lyrical pearls that often earn Ritter comparisons to Bob Dylan--a reference of which he's subtly becoming weary. Its popularity, however, embodies what Ritter so consistently and so deftly accomplishes: He whispers to that thing that's hidden away in each of us remembering a first kiss, a lost love, a long distance longing.

This weekend, the Idaho-grown singer-songwriter returns to Boise for the third time in 18 months for a double-header at the Egyptian Theatre. Blind Pilot opens for Ritter and his band Tuesday, July 14. The next night, New York-based Tift Merritt, whose North Carolina accent has an undeniable habit of asserting itself sporadically in her easygoing conversational demeanor, opens. Then Ritter, who told BW that Boise fans can expect to hear a few songs from his album due out later this year, will take the stage in a solo acoustic performance with support from Boise Philharmonic. For a preview of what that will sound like, get on the Web, find the Central Park show and take a drive back home with "Kathleen."

Tuesday, July 14, Josh Ritter with Blind Pilot; Wednesday, Josh Ritter with Tift Merritt; 8 p.m., $24 each night, $40 both. Egyptian Theatre, 700 Main St., 208-345-0454. Tickets available at Record Exchange, Boise Co-op, The Egyptian Theatre or brownpapertickets.com.

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