Singer-songwriters backed by orchestras have traditionally delivered less emotional bang for the pluck (and blow, and bow) than the premise seems to promise. Mostly it is a grand billowing that takes place — Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” might be the best example — while the complex textures and colors an orchestra can provide are woefully underutilized.
There is reason to hope for, if not outright anticipate, a greater striving toward the full potential of the symphonic/folkie pairing when Josh Ritter plays with the Minnesota Orchestra as part of Sommerfest in downtown Minneapolis tonight. First, despite being a native of that bastion of right-wing rural reactionary fervor — Idaho — Ritter aspires to the liberal erudition of the intelligentsia. His latest disc is sold in Starbucks and streamed on NPR, for gawd sake.
More seriously (although the part about the Starbucks and NPR is true), Ritter’s tunes, even the simpler, strumming ones, seem like stable chassis that can accommodate more grandiose designs without damage to their essence. Listen to the hard-charging ramble of his Dylanesque stream-of-consciousness on “To the Dogs or Whoever.” In the lyrical breaks and over the couplets of this talking blues are the dip and swirl of keys that could easily translate into horns and strings, setting up a wonderfully synergistic contrast.
Ritter’s narratives, especially on his brand-new CD, “So Runs the World Away,” tend toward the epic. “Another New World” is about a voyage beneath the ice of the arctic, and becomes a love song about a man and his ship (the Annabel Lee) akin to those cowboy testamonials about their horses. And “Folk Bloodbath” amounts to a steel-cage match between past champions of the murder ballad — Stagger Lee, Delia, Louis Collins — with a hushed, meandering intro tailor-made for strings.
Another cause for optimism is the presence of Sarah Hicks as the conductor combining the talents of the orchestra with Ritter’s Royal City Band. In her stint with the Minnesota Orchestra Hicks has indicated that she understands how to popularize the classical canon without undue hokum or dumbing-down, and how to classicize pop-song structures without merely pretentious grafting or ostentation.
In other words, Ritter and Hicks seem like good bets to achieve this often botched and/or formulaic synthesis with intelligence and panache, choosing the best of both realms. One suspects they listen to NPR but bypass Starbucks for the more local beaneries.
Here is Ritter’s MySpace page, which includes the studio versions of “To the Dogs or Whoever” and “Change of Time” from the new album.
Here is his acoustic rendition of “Moon River” in Bruce Springsteen’s former backyard of Asbury Park earlier this year.
Here are live takes on “Another New World” and “Folk Bloodbath” from a 2009 gig in Boston.
And here is a Minnpost blurb I wrote almost exactly a year ago previewing Ritter’s appearance at the Varsity Theater.
Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band with the Minnesota Orchestra as part of Sommerfest at Orchestra Hall, tonight at 7:30, tickets are $20-$55.