Photo credit: Jamie Ribisi
I consider myself terribly lucky to have seen Josh Rouse perform in support of each of his four full-length albums. From the first time I saw him perform solo in London, Ontario in 1998 I knew that there was something remarkable about the young singer-songwriter. Opening for Hayden and Juliana Hatfield, Rouse’s shy demeanour and honest, innocent lyrics struck a chord with many in the crowd.
As Rouse’s career progressed, so did his style. Subsequent tours and albums saw him performing with full bands and evolving as an artist. 2000’s Home tour saw him playing a ton of shows with the backing of solid musicians. Working horns, keys, and a stand-up bass into the mix beautifully fleshed out the songs and gave them more of a folk and country feel. Having others with him also seemed to increase Rouse’s confidence on stage. Talking more to the audience, his mannerisms and singing style gave the indication that he was much more comfortable and assured of his abilities in a live setting.
By the time he returned to Canada in 2002 with Under Cold Blue Stars the man was a rock star in the making. Exuding coolness and confidence, Rouse sang and danced like a man ready for the big time. With a new band in tow, his strong catalogue of material was unveiled and given a pop-rock makeover. Watching this, it came as no surprise that Rouse’s most recent album, 1972, is a full-on pop album. Although pop has become an extremely dirty word in most music circles over the last several years, this is a record that needs to be heard. Harkening back to the glory days of AM radio, 1972 is a gorgeous, well-written album and is easily the most fun and exciting piece of music that Rouse has created to date.
Making a brilliant album is one thing, but the main question that should be asked is how did it sound live? Well to be honest, not bad. Opening with “Comeback (Light Therapy)” from 1972, Rouse and crew hit the stage amidst strong applause from the three quarters full venue. Having shed his clean cut, good boy image, Rouse bore a strong resemble to Pete Yorn or, for you Canadians reading this, Sam Roberts. Clad in a cowboy shirt and washed out jeans, Rouse bopped along with a smile on his face as he sang. As the song wrapped up, his band instantly launched into “Under Cold Blue Stars” and “Nothing Gives Me Pleasure”, much to the delight of his fans. Looking around the small venue it was interesting to see all the different types of people present. A mix of several age brackets and styles, the crowd was unified by their appreciation of Rouse’s music.
Although the band, Rouse, and most of the audience were all clearly into the music, something seemed to be missing. Maybe it was just me, but I was having a hard time connecting with the performance and found my attention wandering. Admittedly, things started off kind of slow and perhaps that was what was causing my slight bout of ADD. However, by the time the fourth song rolled around, current single “Love Vibration”, the band seemed to hit their stride and all was going well. With its infectious beat and sing-a-long chorus it’s hard not to be moved by the song. Begging to be danced to, it definitely got those crowding around the stage shaking their rear ends. After getting everyone moving, Rouse gained extra points with the 200 or so people in attendance by bringing up local singer-songwriter Howie Beck to sing backup on “1972”. Sounding amazing together, the two musicians fed off of one another’s voices and turned in a great rendition of the track.
With things finally moving well, the band decided to show off their skills with covers of Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” and Marvin Gaye’s “Where Are We Going”. The latter was the better of the covers, with Rouse strolling around the stage as he sang in a high-pitched voice. The only drawback to the two was their length. As with most songs played during the show they were stretched out a bit too long. The extended jam sessions that concluded each track that Rouse performed on this night detracted from the momentum being built as the show progressed. Jamming at the end of a couple songs is generally ok, but doing so at the end of every number performed gets to be a bit much. Especially from someone who has such a wonderful knack for writing three and four minute pieces of art.
Like any good performer, Rouse managed to get back on track before long. Hitting his stride towards the end of his set, he wowed everyone with back-to-back versions of “Late Night Conversation” and “Dressed up Like Nebraska”. After the strong renditions of the tracks, he could do no wrong as he kicked into “Slaveship”. Not surprisingly, the biggest reactions from the crowd came during Late Night and Dressed, both of which appeared on Rouse’s debut CD. Although the newer material presented throughout the night was very well-received, it was evident by the applause that the audience was yearning for Rouse to dig a little deeper into his catalogue. Pulling out what are arguably the two best songs off of his 1998 effort definitely sent many people home happy.
In the end, I guess that’s all that matters. All in all this was a pretty good show. Of the four times I’ve seen Josh Rouse this was my least favourite, but I’ll admit I went in with pretty high expectations. I was a little turned off by the longer tracks, but still left satisfied. With a history of constantly evolving great performances behind him, maybe next time I’ll get to hear more of the short, simple folk and pop gems that I’ve grown to know and love.