One of singer-songwriter Josh Ritter’s last memories from his days as an Oberlin College student involves sitting in Tappan Square, watching “two squirrels fighting to the death.” He used this anecdote at last night’s show to explain -- or at least make fun of -- his songs about war and the end of the world. But it was also a fitting metaphor for the concert as a whole -- which featured a pair of extraordinary musicians who played beautifully yet still appeared to be dueling for the audience’s attention ...
Ritter performed with Grammy-award winning classical violinist Hilary Hahn as part of an artist-recital series at Oberlin College’s Finney Chapel. It was a cool idea, meshing the violin’s old-school beauty with Ritter’s folksy, man-and-his-guitar subversive style. But in reality, it was more like two solo concerts pushed uncomfortably together. And it was a disappointment for any hardcore fans who’d hoped to see Ritter rock out and instead encountered an unabashedly formal classical music concert -- in a church, of all places.
Ritter (wearing an ill-fitting black suit) performed first, in a spotlight alone with a guitar and microphone. With his near-whispering voice and ever-insightful lyrics -- “I never had to learn to love her, like I learned to love the bomb/She just came along and started to ignore me” -- he commanded a hushed silence from the packed house. He quickly ran through some of his best acoustic material, like “Kathleen” and “The Temptation of Adam.” But just as audience members were settling in to enjoy it, his set was over after a mere 45 minutes.
Then Hahn showed up, accompanying Ritter with heart-tugging harmonies in “The Last Rose of Summer,” “Girl in the War,” and “Thin Blue Flame.” The combo was gorgeous, as the wailing violin added aching sadness to Ritter’s already plaintive tunes. An entire evening of this would have been fantastic. Unfortunately, Hahn dominated the rest of the night, performing Bach, Ernst, and other classical works (Ritter made only one more appearance the rest of the night).
For the crowd -- which included a heavy dose of indie-rock kids and gray-hairs -- this was a clear conflict. During intermission, one elderly lady was overhead jonesing for more Hahn: “She’s gonna play some real music now.” --Lisa Rab