He couldn’t have looked more different from the Man in Black. But singer/songwriter Josh Ritter gave a rousing performance dedicated to the recently departed Johnny Cash at the Paradise on Friday night that showed how deeply Cash had touched his music. The Idaho-born, Boston-based musician was received warmly as he took the stage in a tan corduroy jacket and tie, his blond curls frizzing above his wide, boyish grin. His intimate 1 1/2-hour set brimmed with smart, tender lyrics, heartfelt rock ‘n’ roll, and the kind of easy joking that made the set feel like it was taking place in Ritter’s living room.
As the crowd cheered the opening strums of serene rocker “Kathleen,” Ritter looked so happy to be playing, he seemed on the verge of laughter. He sang with a faint drawl over soulful Hammond and Wurlitzer organ that gave the song a mournful resilience reminiscent of early Van Morrison.
“Harrisburg” burst with rollicking saloon-style piano and slinky bass. Ritter added a line about singing Johnny Cash with friends on the joyous “Me & Jiggs” and led the crowd in “an enormous, giant scream for Johnny.” He brought it down a notch for “Man Burning,” full of soulful organ, Ritter’s smiling vocals, and storyteller folkiness.
At the set’s center, Ritter played solo versions of his earnest, delicate ode to music “Bone of Song” and standout number “You Don’t Make It Easy Babe,” with its assured vocal hopscotch achieving the worn resonance of Bob Dylan. Local artists Blake Hazard and John Dragonetti joined Ritter for a playful rendition of “Tonight You Belong to Me” from Steve Martin’s film “The Jerk.”
The band returned for a rousing singalong during the Irish traditional “Black Velvet Band,” and Ritter’s warm, woody voice and a loose syncopated beat carried “The Bad Actress.” After closing with “Come and Find Me,” with its Dylan-like vocal rhythm, the band lined up for a group bow.
For his encore, Ritter invited opener Andrew Bird to join in a gentle, waltzing version of “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley for Me,” which he played for Cash. “Fireflies” built slowly with insistent organ fills and trickling guitar melody.
After persistent cheers from the crowd, Ritter returned for an unplugged version of “Lawrence KS (Can’t Leave This World Behind)” that had people quieting one another to hear, then filling out the sound by singing along.
Singer/violinist Bird opened with a set of stark songs webbed with angular melodies, which he played using his violin as a guitar, often looping a melody back as a countering rhythm below twangy, finger-plucked violin.
It was easy to imagine Cash looking down with a smile.