Is Josh Ritter the happiest man in music? That beaming smile would certainly suggest so. Perhaps it is sheer relief writ on his face, after all tonight's Empire performance marks the final stop on a circuitous 2006 tour. Or, maybe he's just delighted that, yet again, he's managed to sell out the Empire, this the second night running and third time in total this year. Yes, 2006 and Belfast have certainly been kind to Josh Ritter, but then, courtesy of some truly magical performances, he's reciprocated in kind.
Whatever the reason for the jollity, it's catching, the crowd clapping and hollering, a fevered congregation in thrall to goodly preacher Ritter. And the Empire is the perfect venue, intimate, aching with history. The man himself remarks that he's 'never played anywhere quite like it', and is seriously impressed by that Glamarama sign.
Back in May he finished his set here with 'Hello Starling', this evening its crisp poetics provides for an early delight. Getting a bit of hush in the Empire is no easy task, but with his inimitable charm, Ritter succeeds, the crowd hanging off every heart worn word of 'Girl In The War'.
Festive treats abound, first the Idaho man leads us in a waltz through Fairytale of New York, and then bass man, Zach, gets a spin in the spotlight. Sporting a many sizes too small Stetson and the most marvellous, Salvador Dali facial wear, he comically laments his lack of true cowboy credentials. Thankfully he can dry his tears with that mammoth moustache.
The sense of celebration is all pervasive now, 'Lillian Egypt' tunes into this flow, music that empathises with humanity, joyous, life affirming. No wonder Josh Ritter's always smiling.
Photo by Stuart Bailie