I saw God on Friday. Vested, bowing, plucking notes from a guitar as if they were petals from a rose. Gentle often and violent when necessary. He smiled. He sang songs about wolves and then genuflected on stage to howl at the spotlight. A chorus of howls echoed like reverb from the darkness. He smiled. He played a 90 second ode to Sarah Palin that was somehow gorgeous and satirical without being cruel. He smiled. In their own intonation, he told angels to go to hell, a sure fire sin in somebody’s holy book. Yet he couldn’t stop smiling. He hummed and strummed and picked an audience up to their feet in a room designed for sitting. All while retaining the humility of a shoe shine boy. Maybe I should lowercase that “g.” god. he was definitely one of us.
I did and didn’t attend the Josh Ritter concert alone. I did drive myself to Atlanta and walk solo into Variety Playhouse, where I retrieved my single ticket from Will Call and then proceeded to find a theater seat isolated on the end of a row. But I was just another lash on the collective eye of the audience, because the audience is one person and the performer is one person and the divide between them throughout the whole concert process is well-established, like listening to a loved one ramble on a corded telephone receiver while staring at them through paned glass in a county prison. Controlled communication limited to intangible exchanges. So the prison guard thought.
The set might have been borrowed from Ritter’s own living room. Bookshelves could have lined the perimeter of the stage rather than curtains. On stage: A pair of lit porcelain lamps — matronly light — sitting on antique end tables. Beautiful, virginal white flowers entwining the microphone stand, plastic flowers that came from Michael’s. Not the saint’s cathedral. The arts and crafts chain store, specifically the one in Brooklyn that Ritter broke into at 8 a.m on a Sunday to retrieve the flowers. Next time they’ll understandably come from Hobby Lobby. I know this because Ritter told me. He was funny, but a recap of his joke is not, in the same way that a cell phone video of a live concert moment is not that live moment. Standing at the lefthand side of Josh wasn’t Jesus or Mohammed or a subordinate demigod, but rather a best friend, an upright bass player, a mustache enthusiast, a 15-year partner. Unlike most partners, he didn’t stand on a truncated box; it was the same, level dais, and he provided the same level of quality in his music. Unlike most bass players, I noticed him. He attracted attention because he did not beg for it. A bass player who could make the deep thud of boot steps sound like the falsetto clack of stiletto heels on the feet of your lifelong love walking down a marbled hallway toward you. He distracted me from Josh, and Josh was OK with that, and therefore so was I.
I couldn’t ruin this concert through bitter intellectualization. I tried. So hard: Criticizing the opening act for her anecdotes between each song about a friend who took a trip down to D.C. during the winter in his van and she was gonna go with him but then she didn’t go and she was disappointed she stayed at home so she wrote a song about it: Turning melody into mathematics, convinced that even Ritter’s melodies — some of the loveliest in the audible world — could be feeding off the same infant formulas everyone else used, that he was simply plugging different combinations of the same allotted numbers into the system: Obsessing about issues of personal anxiety personally diagnosed as unsolvable, even by pills, captaining a sinking ship that should have been abandoned a long time ago after confusing “capsize” with “capsule.” But in those musical moments, recurrent enough to drill a bit of enlightenment through the thickest skull, I understood. The kids in church during childhood who cried in the presence of the Lord while I uncomfortably analyzed the font on a funsize Snickers bar wrapper. Or the ones who tightened eyes and bowed heads obediently during prayer in Sunday school while my friend and I took turns showing each other birds that were indeed not doves. I understood. Transcendence can be achieved, as long as your ego isn’t too large for the medium. My back ached from bowing forward for the entire concert, my vision intently running from my body to the stage through a sound wave tunnel carved by hands of working class men, men who sweat and bled for their livings. Focus is its own form of prayer, I found.
When the bass player started a hoedown clap during “To The Dogs Or Whoever,” I wasn’t too embarrassed to clap in accordance. Left hand slaps the stationary right. Odd for a dexterous writer. My clap did not wane mid-way through the song like at other concerts, when people start to pull consciousness away from the group and return it to the scrutinizing self. And neither did the guy’s clap in front of me. We beat the heart out of some of our neighbors with our hands. I harmonized with Josh on the chorus of “Change Of Time,” but only because he invited earnestly. My whispered chant felt as important as his amplified croon. As I think was intended. He obscures the concert rules like this. Right before playing “Lantern” — away from the microphone and amplifier — he asked the switchboard operators to cut all lights in the theater, giving the antique lamp switches a couple of clockwise turns himself. He didn’t want to be seen, because it was the listening that was the point, you see? The listening. And even though three girls with glow sticks gestured fervently for attention during the entire song, I didn’t see them. They crossed my horizon of vision, but didn’t intrude on my sensual experience. Even as one of them danced up the isle toward stage, waving glow sticks like airport traffic control lights, she wasn’t a part of the experience. She couldn’t be. No one denied her. She just wouldn’t allow herself.
I saw god Friday and i looked down on him from a balcony and he looked up at me from a stage and he smiled, and he may have been josh ritter or he may have been griffin limerick or he may have been stan higgins, insurance rep for BlowCorp, but he didn’t care who he was and consequently in that moment i didn’t care who i was either, because there was music being played, and some angel who had been to heaven and hell both sang about the two, and he didn’t want either one because they were each vain in their own right, and neither did i, and we celebrated that decision together. There might have been some brothers and sisters around us, too. They might have written this.