Semi-expatriate singer-songwriter Josh Rouse, who moved from Nashville to Valencia, Spain, in 2004 but now splits his time between that city and Brooklyn, performed two shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago on Friday, October 10. He’s not touring behind a new album, but last month The Best of the Rykodisc Years was released, featuring three or four songs from each of his five albums for the label. Rouse’s three best LPs were recorded during that 1998-2005 period: Under Cold Blue Stars (2002), 1972 (2003), and Nashville (2005).
But Friday night’s show — I caught the 7 PM performance; Rouse performed again at 10:00 — wasn’t exclusively a trek through the back catalog, since Rouse isn’t under contract to his old label anymore. He made mention of The Best of the Rykodisc Years only in passing, as if to acknowledge that he’s been around long enough now to have his own “greatest hits” compilation, though that fact seemed to surprise the low-key but quick-witted artist. (When a fan shouted “Come back soon, Josh” near the end of the show, Rouse replied, “I will. I’ll be back in an hour.” Everyone laughed, but Rouse, being the nice guy that he is, made sure the fan knew he wasn’t making a joke at his expense, and thanked him for the compliment.)
Maybe his ten years as a full-time musician wouldn’t have surprised him so much, though, if he could’ve heard the nearly packed auditorium at the Old Town School singing along to every word of his songs. The acoustics at Old Town are terrific — as Rouse himself said, he barely needed a microphone to be heard — but it’s a sterile environment for a performer who’s put out seven albums since 1998 and has amassed an impressive number of gorgeous, catchy pop songs that his fans know by heart. I wanted to sing along with favorites like “Come Back (Light Therapy),” “It’s the Nighttime,” “Quiet Town,” and “Hollywood Bass Player,” but I didn’t want to be the only one, and I got the feeling everyone else also felt like “the only one.” Nashville‘s “Streetlights” was the one song for which spontaneous crowd singing took place, possibly because it was a request from the audience. Rouse encouraged everyone during the encore to join him on the “ba da ba” chorus of “Winter in the Hamptons,” also from Nashville, but otherwise those of us who wanted to be anonymous backup singers remained vocal wallflowers for the duration of the concert.
The woman sitting beside my friend and I asked before Rouse came onstage if we planned to get up and dance — “I dance around my living room to 1972” — but that opportunity never arose either, so she danced in her seat, making full use of Supremes-like hand movements and “the Swim.” (I can dig it.) I tapped my foot to songs like “Hollywood Bass Player,” a combination of Maxine Nightingale shimmy and T. Rex swagger that Rouse introduced by saying “This one’s about Bootsy Collins,” but I didn’t have the nerve to lead the crowd in shaking their groove thing. I suppose it made sense, though, that an introspective singer-songwriter with a taste for soft rock wouldn’t have a lot of gregarious, life-of-the-party fans. Then again, the drunk people behind me had no problem whispering comments to each other during every song — is Rouse to blame for telling interviewers that he’s fine with people using his two most recent albums as background music at dinner parties? That’s incredibly humble of him, but he’s better than that and deserves his listeners’ undivided attention, even if Subtítulo (2006) and Country Mouse City House (2007) are several rungs down the ladder from his Rykodisc heights.
Rouse noted the varied makeup of the audience at Old Town: in addition to the standard twenty- and thirtysomethings, there were a few tweens up front — no doubt their parents had dragged them along — and lots of older adults who probably don’t leave comments at Stereogum and won’t be hyping Rouse on their blogs. He added that when his first album, 1998’s Dressed Up Like Nebraska, came out overseas, he received positive notices from England’s Mojo magazine, which features plenty of in-depth articles on classic albums; when he subsequently went on tour in the UK, his audiences were filled with “50-year-old men,” something he wasn’t expecting. He looked out at Friday night’s crowd and noticed how many couples were in attendance, saying he gets lots of comments like “My wife loves you” from male concertgoers. At that point several baritones in the audience immediately spoke up: “We love you too, Josh.”
Rouse was joined on a few songs by Mike Cruz, who added piano and rhythm guitar, and at times I wished he’d had a full band behind him, partly to drown out the idle chatter in the audience and partly to fill out songs like “It’s the Nighttime,” whose melody sounded a little too similar to that of “Hollywood Bass Player” without other instruments added to the mix. On the other hand, “Streetlights” was moving even without a string section, and 1972‘s “Sunshine (Come On Lady),” the first song of the night, worked just as well. Rouse’s voice was in good shape on Friday, adding resonance to new songs like “123,” which contained the evening’s second mention of cross-dressing, and “Lemon Tree.” My friend, who hadn’t heard Rouse before except in a YouTube clip, compared his voice favorably to Jeff Tweedy’s.
The highlight of the show, for me, was “Michigan,” which was played during the encore. The song first appeared on 2001’s Bedroom Classics, an EP sold exclusively at Rouse’s shows that year that quickly became a collector’s item. (All six tracks were reissued on the second disc of The Best of the Rykodisc Years. A second version of “Michigan” appears on Rarities, a CD packaged with the 2004 DVD The Smooth Sounds of Josh Rouse.) Over a simple melody and steady rhythm, Rouse sings the contents of a letter written by a young man who ran away to his aunt and uncle’s house in Michigan but wants his parents to know he’s okay: “Mom, I’m sorry, I was wrong / And Dad, I’m sorry, ’cause I just couldn’t stay in that town / Where everyone knows everything about me.” The song ends with these lines: “Michigan’s alright / Still I haven’t found a love / Just want to be happy / Love, your son / Just try to be happy / Love, your son.” Not many songs can make me tear up at the climax, but “Michigan” has on more than one occasion. It’s a stunning track, even more so because of how its bleak but hopeful quality sneaks up on you.
Coincidentally, Rouse’s opening act, the Chicago band Horse in the Sea, sounded like it’s been listening very closely to Sufjan Stevens’s albums the past few years, including 2003’s Michigan. Everything they played had that fragile, whispery, even-the-ghost-of-Tiny-Tim-could-kick-our-ass feeling to it, and the last song in their set, “Mosquito King,” reminded me that Stevens has a song on 2005’s Illinois called “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” Rip-off or tribute? Beats me, but I’m sure Horse in the Sea will improve with age. (The songs on their MySpace page sound better in their studio incarnations than they did live.) Still, I was hoping they’d introduce at least one of their songs with something like “This next one’s about gettin’ your rocks off. Yay-uh!” It would’ve been inappropriate, but like the quiet heartbreak of Rouse’s “Michigan,” nobody would’ve seen it coming.