Showcasing folk
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., October 17, 2002) – Three different approaches to the solo acoustic, singer-songwriter craft were on display at what could have been a mini-folk festival at Club Helsinki on Wednesday night, when comparing and contrasting the performers – Josh Ritter, Lori McKenna and Eliza Gilkyson – proved as satisfying as any of the individual highlights of the evening.

Making his Berkshires debut, Ritter came on the heels of an advanced hype campaign the likes of which is rarely seen in contemporary folk. His press kit is chock full of raves and comparisons to John Prine, Townes van Zandt and Bob Dylan, among others. It’s a lot to live up to and perhaps unfair to judge Ritter based on other people’s comparisons.

But on his own terms, Ritter was impressive. He was a commanding presence, with a gravelly, earthy voice belying his apparent youth and a confident, poetic touch in his songwriting. He played several songs off his recent CD, Golden Age of Radio (Signature Sounds), whose title hints at his weather-beaten, timeless style. His original songs, populated by people stranded in dead-end towns in the mid and far west, sound like ageless folk ballads, spirituals and pre-WWII pop tunes, betrayed only slightly by a rhythmic punch that makes clear they were spawned in the rock era.

Ritter, who closed the evening at the club, performed very matter-of-factly, using his apparent unease on stage to his advantage by incorporating it into a personality that wanted to put up a bit of a front between himself and the man on stage. At times he sang in just above a whisper, accompanying himself quietly with competent but not flashy fingerpicking and strumming on his acoustic guitar. It worked; all ears were transfixed. The only sound you could hear in the nightclub other than Ritter was the hum of the compressors icing the beer.

Helsinki veteran Lori McKenna has previously played the club with a band and an accompanist; this was my first time seeing her perform solo. In contrast to Ritter’s low-key dynamism, McKenna was all energy and bombast. She used her guitar to approximate the punch of a band, and in nearly every song she broke out into a piercing, twangy wail. What was missing was texture and dimensionality, and without them, her melodies seemed limited and lacking in the sort of inevitability that grabs a listener through sheer musical logic.

I only caught the last three songs of Eliza Gilkyson’s short opening set, but on the basis of those three songs, Gilkyson clearly deserves her own headlining gig (in fact, she did perform a year ago at the Guthrie Center). While still relatively unknown, Gilkyson has been around a long time, and she combined stunning professionalism with amazing tools: a rich, clear voice, much more fluid than it sounds on her recordings, and a full-bodied guitar sound. Her songs stayed simple, but there was a lot of power in their rootsy simplicity.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 18, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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