A Performance, Reading and Conversation with Josh Ritter and John Wesley Harding, May 5th in Hartman Lounge

“Playing music is relaxing.  Reading is inherently tense,” John Wesley Harding said at the beginning of last week’s WAMFEST event featuring Josh Ritter and Harding in a performance, reading and chat together in Hartman Lounge.  “We’re going to play a couple songs for you first, to help loosen up.”

Ritter pulled his guitar onto his lap, described what he wanted to play then asked the audience with complete sincerity, “Is that cool?”

A few people giggled.  Everyone nodded eagerly.  Of course it was cool, anything he wanted to do would have been cool, he’s Josh Ritter.  But fame didn’t seem to affect him at all.  He spoke warmly and openly, gave a hug to everyone who approached him and asked, “How’s life?”  He seemed like that nice young man who lives next door to Granny and helps her pull weeds out of her flowerbed.  But when he started playing, it quickly became obvious why he’s a star: the man is freakin’ talented.  Yet, despite all this, he remained kind and genuine throughout the afternoon, smiling so broadly when he played that his cheeks bubbled up and his pupils disappeared in the creases of his eyes.

Harding followed Ritter’s opening song with a hilarious, upbeat and charming number of his own about gettin’ buzzed and havin’ fun.  One of the most impressive things about Harding was his natural ability as an overall performer; his crisp, beautiful voice nailed every note, his versatile guitar work provided a steady, rhythmic backbone or a melodic lead, his witty banter and dynamic, vibrant way of speaking kept his audience engaged and excited.  Harding is the kind of person who can turn a mistake into a funny joke, leaving his fans feeling special to have witnessed something so in-the-moment.  Plus, his sharp sense of style, ranging from white suits with beaded shoes to the more classic jeans and button-up, only enhances his aura (I strongly encourage all the hairy, hipster boys out there to watch a Harding performance and take notes).

Oh, and let’s not forget the two are also incredibly gifted novelists.  Harding’s recent release, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, has received wide acclaim from The New York Times, NPR and many other reviewers, while Ritter’s new book, Bright’s Passages, will be released this June with high expectations.

“It’s all about the meter, the rhythm of the language,” Ritter said about his writing process.  “A song is like a hallway with many doors you can go through to explore.  I approached my novel like that without realizing how much more work it is.”

“In a song, you can say the least about something but in a novel, that’s not the case at all,” Harding added.  “You can’t hide in a novel.”

While being a great musician provides some understanding of novel writing, it certainly doesn’t mean you’ll also be a great author.  However, neither of these men was a stranger to story writing when they first began their novels.  Throughout their careers as musicians, both have captured real, honest moments in their poetic lyrics, often relaying a full story within a single song.  Despite the similarities between writing lyrics and novels, however, both spoke about how hard it was to sit alone and work on their books.

“Music is done in public, often with alcohol,” Harding laughed.  “You collaborate a lot, you make a friend or even get married that night.  But writing is lonely.”

“I had lots of false starts,” Ritter said.  “Running a revolution is easier than writing a novel, that’s for sure!”  He laughed along with everyone else, though he seemed serious about the statement.  “That nervousness is good, it keeps things scary a bit,” he added.

Ritter then read a passage from his novel that follows a War World II vet, Bright, on the run with a child and a ghost.  The pace and flow of Ritter’s antiquated language rang true to his songwriting yet took on a new voice of its own, painting vivid, specific images of Bright’s surroundings, emotions and overall experiences.

Harding followed up with a passage from the beginning of his novel that instantly brought the audience to the hills of Ireland where the narrator meets the young composer, Charles Jessold, and experiences a magical and touching performance of an old ballad, Little Musgrave.  Harding’s prose was magnetic and humorous, bouncing along much like the way he speaks. When he finished reading, Harding played a gorgeous rendition of Little Musgrave that showcased his vocal, guitar and storytelling skills while also bringing his novel even more to life.

The two performers then engaged the audience in a lively and interesting Q&A before closing out with a Harding original, complete with a lovely vocal harmony.

Many, many huge thanks to all of our performers and sponsors, our Artist-in-Residence John Wesley Harding and our outstanding creator, David Daniel, for an amazing WAMFEST 2011!  Stay tuned for next year!

Words by Becky Fine-Firesheets.  Images by Dan Landau.

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