Josh Ritter Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto ON, February 16

Josh Ritter Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto ON, February 16
Photo: Amy Buck
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For 15 years or so now this poetic polymath from Moscow, Idaho has been touring at a frantic pace, writing and singing some of the most jaw-droppingly excellent material you're likely to hear, and smiling like a freshly laid teenager while doing it. Onstage, radiating profound joy and genuine affection for his fans, Ritter was a magnet. His is a once- or twice-in-a-generation talent, a dreamy intersection of lyric, melody and room-silencing presence.
 
So why is it that his full-band concerts so often feel like near misses?
 
Emerging onstage to a shower of applause from an adoring crowd, Ritter opened the show alone, picking a plaintive version of "Idaho" under a soft spotlight. As his band slipped in around him, Ritter grinned: "This is the first night of our tour, so we're gonna go for it." And, it's true; they went for it. Rocking through material from Ritter's so-so latest album Sermon on the Rocks and a smattering of fan favourites like "Monster Ballads" and "Right Moves," the Royal City Band pushed Ritter's thoughtful, apocalyptic folk songs to unlikely places. Paradoxically, the persistent result was a flattening of their power; Ritter's thrilling lyrics were buried, his enchanting melodies obscured.
 
Far and away the highlight of the show (apart from the spellbinding opening number) was the brief solo acoustic section toward the end of the set when the band melted away and Ritter ran through "Snow is Gone," "Change of Time" and a cover of Roger Miller's "Engine, Engine #9." For ten solid minutes, the room was pin-drop silent, a thousand people gathered in the palm of his hand. Few artists of any genre can achieve this result. Shame this glimpse of his mastery was so teasingly brief.