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SXSW Friday: Frightened Rabbit / Josh Ritter

So I dragged myself out of bed at 7:30 a.m. to get downtown by 8 to see Frightened Rabbit play live for KUT. I made it by 8:15 and was able to catch the last few songs of Scott Hutchison’s solo set. I was especially fond of “State Hospital” and old-school inclusion “The Modern Leper,” both of which translated quite nicely to the acoustic setting. Hutchison’s singing voice is simply a goldmine of emotive energy, and it was just as impressive live as it is recorded. Hutchison’s sense of humor was in fine form, as he cracked clever jokes between songs and had the audience smiling and happy to be awake that early in the morning. Wish I could have seen more, but whoa, 8 a.m. was early.

However, I caught the full set of Josh Ritter’s recording, which was absolutely astonishing. I’ve been in love with his new release The Beast in Its Tracks, which came out March 5. He played the four best tunes from it (“Joy to You, Baby” “New Lover,” “Hopeful,” “The Appleblossom Rag”), covered John Prine’s beautiful “Mexican Home,” and invited Hutchison back out to duet with him on The Animal Years‘ “Girl in the War.” “Girl” is my favorite Ritter song that I haven’t heard live, as he didn’t play it when I saw him a few years ago. To see it performed with not one but two of my favorite vocalists in the world was absolutely thrilling. It was easily the highlight of SXSW so far and probably for the rest of SXSW too: it will be incredibly hard to top that.

Ritter’s easygoing songwriting and incisive lyrical turns are just as masterful as Isbell’s, but are delivered in a vastly different way. Instead of booming and commanding his way through the tunes, Ritter playfully stepped through them, tossing off jaw-dropping lyrics as if it were easy to write them. He and an accompanying acoustic guitarist also made the tunes sound easy as well, rolling through the tunes with an easy swagger. If you haven’t heard The Beast in Its Tracks, you really need to: it’s going to be on my end of year list for sure. Simply a brilliant performance by Josh Ritter, both in album and on stage.