The Parks Foundation knew they wanted Josh Ritter for the SummerStage season, but booking him opening night created an incentive for panache, so organizers told us. Thus the New York Pops were called upon to accompany the plainly eloquent singer-songwriter for his park debut. Ritter—backed by Zack Hickman, bass, Sam Kassirer, piano, Austin Nevins, lead, and Liam Hurley, drums—pulled out some older tunes over the course of his one-and-a-half-hour set (“Other Side”, “Bone of Song”, “Kathleen”), though most were saved for the end. Mostly the set stuck to his Animal Years and Historical Conquests repertoire. The latter record was also full of orchestrations and arrangements, setting up hopeful recreations. Unfortunately from the opening notes of the Pops’ overture it was abundantly clear that they would be the one blight of the evening. Even by community orchestra standards they were plagued by intonation issues—and technical ones beyond their control. They were able to scrap together competent accompaniments for a few numbers, though (“Kathleen”, “Empty Hearts”).
Salvation came in Ritter himself. He was unabashedly excited about his Summerstage gig, repeatedly doling out thank yous. In other words, he was his usual sympathetic, earnest and boyish self, practically speechless from the enthusiastic crowd and setting. His voice sounded strong throughout, particularly on “Girl in the War” and “Temptation of Adam”, as it either ached for a wronged lover or spun tall tales. His gorgeous melodies resonated with both equanimity and passion, and occasionally picked up the tempo as well (“To the Dogs or Whoever”). Two special guests also appeared, usurping the Pops in substance and style. Violinist Hilary Hahn joined Ritter for a duet of “Thin Blue Flame”, imbuing Ritter’s sound with warmth and feeling. And for his encore Ritter invited Glen Hansard to sing a duet on “Come and Find Me”. Hansard ended up running back onstage for the finale, “Empty Hearts”. It was a satisfying end to a dreary week of rain and an ideal start to the SummerStage season.