Nicki Bluhm and Josh Ritter

Starring Nicki Bluhm, as a woman coming into her power, and Josh Ritter, as the gleeful hobbit preacher.

Josh Ritter Band

A few weeks ago we went to the Crest Theater, a gorgeous art deco venue in downtown Sacramento, for an Americana show. I don’t leave the house much, and I especially don’t like to leave the house at night, so I’m pretty choosy about which events I go to. This was worth heading into the wild. (We also sat at the bar at The Capitol Garage, ate dessert, and talked to the bartender. Who even am I?)

I’d seen Nicki Bluhm before and I knew she was good, but my main incentive to go to this show was to see Josh Ritter. Although we’ve been listening to him for years, his Sermon on the Rocks album blew my socks off. All of the juicy religious imagery in that album destroys me.

Nicki Bluhm came out singing a cappella. When I last saw her at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, she was with her ex-band. With the whole band performing, I didn’t pay particular attention to her voice. But when she came out singing without accompaniment, well damn. That girl can sing. (We had front row center seats for this show and for Gillian Welch a couple of years ago, and now I’m ruined; I never want to sit in the back of a theater again, nor do I want to attend a big arena show. I like to see the music being made as much as I like to hear it. Another bonus at this show, I didn’t need my ear plugs. The sound was perfect.)

Sitting so close, we had the added benefit of watching Bluhm sing, seeing her neck and jaw and lips stretch to make sound. I can’t get over how amazing her voice is. It struck me that she is really a singer more than an instrumentalist, one who was lost playing in a band. She’s learning to fly as she plays alone. The woman has real courage and this is why:  she was standing in front of a crowd playing guitar, even though she’s really not a confident guitar player. Since I was up close, I noticed, but I’m guessing the further back you were, the less you focused on her hand placement and concentration.

We, many/most of us, have the idea that we have to be perfect or have it all worked out before we can start our business/write our book/do our art. Bluhm is an artist who had to reinvent herself publicly after a very public break up from the partner and band she was with for more than a decade. Bluhm is courageous and fierce, performing brand new songs, playing her guitar the best she can, and lighting the audience on fire.

Maybe the most striking thing was that her performance felt authentic. I felt like I was witnessing live art, literally. And, her dress was all kinds of gorgeous. When I saw her at Hardly Strictly, she was wearing a white pant suit with bell bottoms, which struck me as a bold choice considering most of the other performers went with an Americana or rock n’ roll vibe. This time she wore a full body black dress that shimmered and reflected the light magically. My husband, who doesn’t care about dresses, commented on it. Then, at the intermission, the twenty-something dudes behind me commented on it. It was mesmerizing. (You can sort of see the dress here, but this image doesn’t do it justice.)

The enthusiasm was so pure, like a life jacket from the universe in these confounding and cynical waters.

Josh Ritter, on the other hand, is freaking gosh darn adorable, as is his band of misfits. (Like, the guitar player is Meathead-from-Archie Bunker adorable and the bass player is proud-of-my-cunnilingus-skills adorable and the keyboard player couldn’t-contain-his-joy adorable). The description and I came up with after watching him perform a couple of songs is that he is a gleeful hobbit preacher. He jumps up and closes his eyes and smiles and is so dang excited to be alive. The second he started singing the crowd broke out in smiles. The enthusiasm was so pure, like a life jacket from the universe in these confounding and cynical waters.

I’ve always had an affinity for excellent songwriters. When I first learned that many artists and bands didn’t write their own music I felt cheated. (BTW, I don’t anymore, but as a young person I was both more idealistic and less intellectually flexible, which I suppose is what being a young person is all about.)

In my formative years I sought out musicians who wrote the lyrics, the music, and performed. I became even more impressed with the singer-songwriter when I tried to learn to play guitar. I took lessons for a while. I practiced quite a bit (and I apologize to my neighbors on West Street in Ames for that). I just was not good. I recognize that with more dedicated practice I would have improved, but I seriously had no real talent and could never get the hang of how to keep the beat, which is a basic component of musicianship. I also sucked at strumming, which looks much easier than it is. When I quit trying to play, I could pick a very staccato “Blackbird,” and that’s as good as I got before I gave my guitar to a friend who actually played it.

I also can’t sing worth a shit. I like to sing, but have zero natural ability. I tried to take singing lessons, too. It was one of those things I decided to do about a decade ago to create more joy in my life. Turns out, at least with my teacher, singing lessons are not fun at all. It sucked joy rather than created it. Weird, that.

When I started writing this I thought it was about the concert, and it is, but then all the stuff about not playing guitar and not signing came out. So I thought about what that was about. At first I thought it was about doing you. Nicki and Josh both embody themselves. There is a clarity to their stage personas that resonates.

As I was driving home tonight I heard someone on a podcast say that what creatives have in common is passion. I don’t tend to spend much time thinking about passion, and some days I might feel like I don’t have an answer to the question, what is your passion?, but I do today.

Maybe in an alternate universe I am a singer songwriter, but in this one I’m a teacher and I am pretty passionate about that. Even though I teach writing, I am more passionate about teaching than writing. I am more passionate about teaching poetry than reading or writing it. I am more passionate about engaging people in writing than I am in producing a body of work myself.

If you want to hop on the Josh Ritter bandwagon, start with Sermon on the Rocks for a more intense experience, or Gathering for a more melodic pop fun.

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