I had not had a chance to see Josh Rouse in person before, despite having been a fan of his nuanced songwriting and impressively diverse catalog for decades, so I was not quite sure what to expect when I caught him at The Locks at Sona in Philadelphia last Friday night. To my delight, I discovered that Rouse is not only a pro’s pro as a musician — he played every tune, including a couple of older crowd-requested ones, with flawless virtuosity — but a personable and warmly engaging performer as well.
That winning combo was fully in evidence from the start and nicely enhanced by The Locks’ intimacy. Though it was a cold winter’s night outside, the atmosphere inside was warm and convivial thanks to Rouse’s easy, charming banter and at times self-deprecating sense of humor. Looking dapper in a dark blue suit and tie and with his light brown hair swept back from his forehead, Rouse leapt in with two of his “oldies but goodies” — the title track from his 2003 album 1972 and “It’s the Night Time,” from 2005’s Nashville — before introducing several tunes from his latest album, Love in the Modern Age.
Following some between-song banter about how tough the winter has been and “the best Scandinavian invention, besides IKEA and fish for breakfast: light therapy in the winter,” Rouse launched into the R&B-flavored “Come Back” with its confessional line “I miss my serotonin, my days are going nowhere fast” and the chorus’s plea “Come back… Baby, here the sun don’t shine / Bring my happy back.”
Accompanied only by a tobacco-burst Guild semi-hollow electric guitar, a small amp, a couple of effects pedals and an occasional harmonica, Rouse made his compositions come alive in ways that were surprisingly true to the fully orchestrated recorded versions. His tasteful integration of reverb, looping and chorus effects into his presentation was especially impressive, along with some deft whistling that helped carry the melodies over his consistently interesting chord changes.
The affluent, dinner-and-a-show crowd of 30- to 60-somethings certainly loved it, clapping and whooping loudly as each song ended and happily singing along at Rouse’s every request. As I overheard one audience member say afterwards, “Wow, that was FANTASTIC — I didn’t expect him playing solo would be so good!”
Rouse’s set list included three songs off the new album: “Salton Sea,” which he said was inspired by a YouTube documentary on that body of water that was narrated by John Waters (it was “kinda creepy,” he noted); “Businessman,” the catchy refrain to which (“Twenty-four hours a day”) Rouse claimed his kids sing whenever he and his wife argue (!); and the title track, ”Love in the Modern Age,” which he successfully urged the crowd to join him on.
Having grown up in a military family Rouse has lived all over the world, and his music incorporates a wide-ranging mix of influences, styles and musical flavors, including country, folk, pop, jazz, and R&B. Another particularly tasty flavoring comes from his exposure to Spanish music (he recently moved back to Nashville after living in Spain for a decade), and he happily incorporated several songs from the albums he produced during his stay on the Iberian peninsula. These included “Lemon Tree” from El Turista, during which Rouse played harmonica while artfully moving between simple triads and beefier chord voicings on the guitar; “JR Worried Blues” from The Embers of Time; and a lovely tune with Spanish lyrics about his former hometown, Valencia — where, he noted, Spain’s “second best invention behind the guitar,” paella, was first created — featuring flamenco-style guitar strumming and the lilting refrain “ciudad de la playa.”
Rouse alternated the Spanish-influenced tunes with other songs spanning his entire catalog, including the finger-picked “Quiet Town,” the California-loving “Sunshine,” “Flight Attendant” (about which Rouse commented, “I have no idea why somebody wanted to use that for a movie!”), and the moody “My Love Has Gone,” which had the audience tapping and snapping fingers to its chorus’s bittersweet minor chord changes. It was the first time I’d seen an audience cheer so loudly for a slow, sad ballad.
An experienced showman, Rouse connected with the audience by sprinkling in humorous anecdotes between songs. The most memorable of these was his tale about when Prince came to see him play a show at a supper club in Minneapolis. Having been alerted to the fact that the Purple Prince was in the house, Rouse decided to play his “sexiest” song for Prince. Unfortunately, Rouse relayed sadly, Prince got up and walked out in the middle of the performance.
Years later, Rouse had the opportunity to record with Prince’s trombone player, and the songwriter couldn’t resist asking what Prince was really like. “Horny,” the trombonist replied with a dead-serious look.
The last few songs of Rouse’s set — “Winter in the Hamptons,” with its simple, hyper-catchy refrain, followed by the smooth, Brazilian jazz-inflected “Here Comes the Summertime” and the mellow, arpeggiated finale, “It’s Good to Have You” from 2013’s The Happiness Waltz — were clearly the biggest crowd pleasers of the evening, along with his three encore numbers.
Rouse managed the arc of that three-song encore masterfully, moving from Marvin Gaye-inspired “Love Vibration” to the early ballad “Feeling No Pain,” and ending with the stunning “Sad Eyes.” That last tune — with its lovely, uplifting chorus contrasting with the dark minor-chord moodiness of the verses, which were punctuated by a startling double-time jump to the bridge followed by a sweet, orchestral slide back into the chorus — aptly showcased Rouse nimble, genre-defying songwriting chops.
By encore’s end the crowd was belting out every chorus along with Rouse, and the show ended to wildly appreciative applause. His showmanship never felt stagey or forced, yet Rouse managed to forge a tight connection with his audience in an incredibly short amount of time. That in itself was truly an impressive thing to behold.
More info, tour dates, videos and recordings can be found at: https://