On Stage: Josh Ritter goes for a new sound

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By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times

Josh Ritter

If you’re a fan of singer/songwriters who write great songs and have strong stage presence, you have quite a few good options this Tuesday and Wednesday with shows by Josh Ritter and Art d’Ecco on May 14 and concerts by Lissie and John Shakespear on May 15.

Ritter, will headline a show at the Keswick Theatre (291 N. Keswick Avenue, Glenside, 215-572-7650, www.keswicktheatre.com) on Tuesday evening, is touring in support of his brand-new album “Fever Breaks.”

Josh Ritter, who is a singer, a songwriter, a multi-instrumentalist, a New York Times best-selling author, a painter, and a consummate performer, released the 10-song album on April 26 via Pytheas Recordings/Thirty Tigers. “Fever Breaks” was recorded at Nashville and features Jason Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit.

“We had two separate session in Nashville – in July and in November,” said Ritter, during a phone interview last week from a tour stop in Northampton, Massachusetts. “Between Jason and me and the musicians, lining up our schedules was a miracle.”

Ritter was looking for something different with his new album – so he went with Isbell’s band rather than his own long-time band – the Royal City Band.

“I’ve been making music with the Royal City Band for 20 years and had never really branched out,” said Ritter. “I wanted to work with new people. I wanted to challenge myself. I just needed to put myself in a new situation. It’s important for the art to shake things up and keep moving in a new direction.

“I supported Jason and his band three years ago. I toured with them. They were cool, interesting people. I got to know Jason and his band.  So when I decided to use new musicians, they came to mind immediately.”

Ritter, Isbell, and Amanda Shires (Isbell’s wife and a member of the 400 Unit) got together in Nashville and began working on the new project.

“With the songs I brought to Jason and Amanda, I realized that I didn’t know the choices the 400 Unit would make,” said Ritter. “I didn’t know where they would take my songs. It was a surprise every time.

“I thought that the most important thing was for the album to be a reflection of the moment we’re living in. That was a guiding principle for some of the songs – and there are some dark moments. There’s a lot of violence on the record, and there’s a lot of desperation.’

Now that Ritter is back on the road, he’s back touring with the Royal City Band.

“I have a great communication and friendship with my band,” said Ritter. “My commitment to the Royal City Band is total. We have such a long relationship and friendship.

“They’re out with me now — re-interpreting the new songs in a new way. They picked up the new songs really fast. I hope the audience comes and realizes the songs are different now that the way they were on the album. The album was a moment in time not something I expected to hold on to.”

Video link for Josh Ritter – https://youtu.be/3opH6duKuaM.

The show at the Keswick, which has Penny and Sparrow as the opening act, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $29 and $39.

Art d’Ecco

One way to describe Art d’Ecco is to say that its music and its image is 180 degrees the opposite of jam bands like Phish or the Dead.

Art d’Ecco, which is headlining a show on May 14 at Everybody Hits (529 W Girard Avenue, Philadelphia, https://everybodyhitsphila.com), plays glam rock with a heavy influence of Berlin-era Bowie. Its leader wears make-up onstage and looks as if he was conceived through mid-1980s MTV videos. The songs are tight, and the look is glam-rock slick – no long jams played by grungy musicians in jeans and flannel shirts.

CBC Music offered the following description – “There’s more than a little David Bowie in both the sonic and fashion leanings of Art d’Ecco, a performer who fluidly crosses musical and gender lines, creating highly memorable tracks — and sporting an unforgettable look. Often labelled “neo glam,” the music boasts hints of everything from ’50s pop to psychedelics, from Velvet Underground-era art rock to Grimes-inspired electronics.”

Art d’Ecco agrees.

“I don’t think fans should be dressed in jeans and t-shirts and see a band onstage dressed the same way – if you’re going onstage to perform for people, you need to look like a show,” said d’Ecco, during a phone interview last week from his home in the Gulf Islands near Vancouver.

“Right now, I’m getting packed up to take the ferry to Vancouver. Then, I’m off to Toronto to start the tour.”

Mysterious Canadian glam-rocker Art d’Ecco is touring in support of his stellar 2018 debut album “Trespasser” (Paper Bag Records) including stops in Toronto, Cincinnati, Philadelphia.

“This will be my first time to play Philadelphia,” said d’Ecco. “Actually, it will be the first time I’ve ever visited Philadelphia.

“I moved all around Canada growing up – mostly in B.C. in Vancouver and Victoria. I was playing in bands in the Vancouver area. When I was in my late 20s, I got tired of playing other people’s music.”

The Gulf Islands of the Pacific Northwest have a unique vibe. The islands jut up through the brisk waters of the Pacific Ocean with lush, hushed red cedar and Douglas Fir skyscrapers. When d’Ecco moved into his grandmother’s cottage on one of the islands, he hadn’t planned on creating a new project.

“This was my grandmother’s home that I knew from my childhood,” said d’Ecco. “She was living with Alzheimer’s Disease and suffered a related phenomenon called ‘sundowning,’ which triggers increased agitation and anxiety around sunset.

“The only way to calm this lady down was to sit down at the piano and play for her. I would play ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and tell her it was Beethoven. She knew it wasn’t Beethoven, but it still calmed her down.

“After she died, I remained in the empty house and got into songwriting again. It was a lonely, cold winter – grey and foggy. With an environment like that, you get introspective.”

Draped in memory, d’Ecco gravitated toward the piano, spending the long, lonesome, quiet nights on the bench before the instrument. This is where Art d’Ecco was created. He relocated to a new cottage, built a studio and barricaded himself with copies of Deerhunter’s “Cryptograms,” Bowie’s “Low,” and a selection of krautrock records.

“That was the genesis of ‘Trespasser,’” said d’Ecco. “I started it in 2016. I researched records I really liked – chasing tunes and collecting gear. I made a studio with a lot of great analog gear and wrote a lot.

“The period that I was sonically trying to get to the bottom of was Bowie in the late 70s, Tony Visconti, Eno and Iggy Pop. I also went back to krautrock – bands like Can and Neu. I wanted to take avant-garde music through a pop filter. The first song I wrote for the album was ‘Never Tell,’ which is 100 per cent inspired by Roxy Music’s ‘Love Is the Drug.’”

After a while, d’Ecco and his music were ready to escape from the island.

“Once that demo process finished, I brought it to Vancouver,” said d’Ecco. “I worked with Jason Corbett from the band Actors in 2017 at his studio called Jackknife Sound. We spent a lot of time recording it properly. Then, I got lucky and signed with Paper Bag Records.

“When I was working on the album, I was neurotic. I had monomania. I kept re-doing parts. It took about a year. The album was finally done at the end of 2017.”

With the album achieving closure, Art d’Ecco moved forward.

“In 2018, I flew to Toronto to meet with the label,” said d’Ecco. “The album officially dropped on October 12.

“I played 75 per cent of the music myself. On the road, I’m out with a four-piece – bass, drums and two guitars. It’s a rock band.”

Video link for Art D’Ecco – https://youtu.be/90ifrQ1UFNo.

The show at Everybody Hits, which has The 1910 Chainsaw Company and SØLΛR as opening acts, will start at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10.

Lissie

On May 15, Lissie will return to the area for a show at the at the Ardmore Music Hall (23 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore, 610-649-8389, www.ardmoremusic.com). It will be her final stateside show prior to heading to the U.K. for tour in May followed by a Scandinavian tour in June.

After releasing her stunning U.K. Top 10 album “Castles” last year, Lissie has returned in 2019 with “When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective,” which was released on April 5, 2019 on Cooking Vinyl. It is a stripped-down sonic collection that reinterprets songs from her first decade in music along with covers of Fleetwood Mac (“Dreams”) and The Dixie Chicks (“Cowboy Take Me Away”).

“I decided I wanted to do this project back when I was touring ‘Castles’ in early 2018,” said Lissie, during a phone interview last week.

“We had done these piano promo events. I realized I loved singing with so much space around me. It was such a pleasure to do it.”

It was a revelation for the veteran singer/songwriter – in a very good way.

According to Lissie, “When you take a song out of its production and strip it down to its basic elements, you get the heart of the song. You find out whether it can stand on its own, whether it’s a good song. When they come down to their basic bones, are these really meaningful pieces that stand on their own?”

“Castles” was released in March 2018 on Lionboy/Thirty Tigers. Additionally, the album’s hit single “Best Days” reached the Top 10 on Triple A Radio.

Written predominantly from Lissie’s farm in northeast Iowa, “Castles” represented a new openness in her approach to songwriting and recording. Having moved out of the music industry machine and back to her native Midwest, the grounding she found living and working on a farm ushered in a period of exploration. “Castles” is a portrait of an artist who has always been on the move and is finally creating a sense of permanency.

“I started writing songs for ‘Castles’ in 2016 and spent a year working on the album,” said Lissie. “The song ‘My Wild West’ was about leaving California, going back to the Midwest and buying a farm.”

The album was also informed by some painful, personal problems Lissie had experienced in recent years.

“Going into the writing of ‘Castles,’ I had been in this confusing and painful relationship,” said Lissie. “Making ‘Castles’ was very much a cathartic experience. I re-evaluated what I want – to use my music to chronicle my experiences…which are also universal experiences. I’ve found that audiences can relate to the songs.”

“Castles” was an album with which Lissie expanded her sound, reached out for new sonic palettes, and incorporated synths and drum machines into her sound. “When I’m Alone: The Piano Retrospective” subtracts these elements, removes the noise and puts Lissie’s songwriting bare for an emotive and powerful listening experience.

“I recorded a lot of the album in Berlin,” said Lissie. “I reached out to Martin Craft to see if he wanted to work on the project. When I was on tour in Europe, I’d stop in Berlin for a few days. Jo Dudderidge and Martin shared piano duties and arrangements. All the Berlin tracks were recorded at Martin Craft’s studio there and the arrangements came quite naturally.

“I spent time in Berlin in July and October, and I was done in December. We finished the final mixes around Christmas. It was creatively satisfying to take these songs I’ve played 10 years with a band and play them this way. It’s a supplement to the rest of my work rather than a new thing.

“I don’t really feel that ‘When I’m Alone’ is to be held in the same realm as my last two albums (‘Castles’ and ‘My Wild West’). They were big albums with a lot of people involved. This is beautiful piano arrangements tapping into things that already existed.

“And, it gives a lot of space to my voice – giving my voice a moment to shine unencumbered. I just wanted a lot of room. I’m hitting notes in a way I’ve never done before.’

This brief tour by Lissie is a special run of piano duo shows in May featuring Jo Dudderidge from UK’s The Traveling Band on piano. 

In addition, Lissie is partnering with PLUS1 so that $1 from every ticket sold on their upcoming tour will go to support Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and its work to safeguard the earth — its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends.

According to Lissie, “I have been a longtime supporter of the amazing organization NRDC which combines the power of more than three million members and online activists with the expertise of some 600 scientists, lawyers, and policy advocates across the globe to ensure the rights of all people to the air, the water, and the wild.

“In my opinion, it’s more important than ever to defend and protect our precious natural world. I thank NRDC for all of the incredible work they do. I am proud to partner with PLUS1 so that $1 from every ticket sold on this tour will go to NRDC and their work to safeguard the earth.”

For more information on NRDC, go to www.nrdc.org.

Video link for Lissie – https://youtu.be/PCYPIaJYsBs.

The show at the Ardmore Music Hall, which has Christine Irizarry as the opener, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $21.

John Shakespear

Indie-folksinger/songwriter John Shakespear, who will perform at Bourbon & Branch (705 North Second Street, Philadelphia, 215-238-0660,bourbonandbranchphilly.com) on May 15, has been singing in front of people most of his life.

Shakespear, who now lives in Nashville and is a part-time professor at Vanderbilt University, grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When he was a youngster, he attended St. Paul’s Choir School in Harvard Square and was part of an all-boys choral program which required four hours of choir practice or music lessons a day.

He is now on the road – touring in support of his debut album “Spend Your Youth,” which was just released on May 10.

“‘Spend Your Youth’ was recorded at Bear Tone Studio in Waltham, Massachusetts,” said Shakespear, during a recent phone interview as he traveled through Virginia from a show in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to as gig in Washington, D.C.

“It was produced by Devon Dawson. He and I had been talking about doing a recording project for a while. I recorded it there at his studio which is also a church. We started working on the album in May 2017 and tracking finished in August 2018.

“The long period to make it was partially because I had moved from Massachusetts to Nashville. It was mixed by Greg Giorgio at Tarquin Studio in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Even though I was living in Nashville, I went back to Massachusetts and Connecticut to make the album.”

Music wasn’t the only thing that drew Shakspear to Nashville.

“I’m also a fiction writer,” said Shakespear. “A couple years ago, I applied to a creative writing program at Vanderbilt. On the other hand, music was the tipping point. Nashville is a great place for Americana and my music is a mix of Americana and indie rock.

“I grew up in Cambridge. I went to college at Princeton University because I wanted to get away from home. I studied creative writing at Princeton. After I graduated, I spent a year in Phnom Pen, Cambodia.”

But Massachusetts drew him back.

“I moved to Somerville,” said Shakespear, who is a child of an Argentine immigrant father and a Boston-Irish mother. “I played in a couple bands — including Atlas Lab – and I also did solo work.

“I went to Nashville to work on my solo project and, last year, I taught fiction at Vanderbilt. I’m a singer/songwriter whose influences are Leonard Cohen and Fleet Foxes.

“Some of the songs on ‘Spend Your Youth’ have bene around for at least four years. The song ‘Wanderluster’ was written Cambodia. Some of the newer stuff was written in early 2017.

“I was inspired by some of the stuff that was happening politically at the time. I don’t think this album is explicitly political – except in a couple places. I do think it’s about delivering something that’s going to connect with people emotionally.”

Video link for John Shakespear – https://youtu.be/ciBtbL7kTW4.

The show at Bourbon & Branch, which also features Port Arthur, The Still, and Small Voice, will start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.

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