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Josh Rouse @The El Rey 9/28/07

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Josh Rouse is my secret boyfriend. So secret, in fact, that neither my actual boyfriend, or Josh himself knows this, but that's entirely beside the point. He's my secret boyfriend, and I am pie-eyed over him, and therefore Josh Rouse can do no wrong. Put me in a room with him--like let's say the El Rey Theatre on Friday September 28th--dim the lights, hand the man a guitar, and you've found the perfect recipe to give me a 90 minute perma-grin.

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What added to my bliss was that the venue was full but not packed to the gills. This meant that when Rouse launched into one of his many upbeat and optimistic buy-the-world-a-Coke songs, like "Love Vibration" from an older album of his called 1972, I could easily do my little shimmy-on-the-spot dances and bop around gleefully, knowing I wouldn't be digging my elbow into my neighbor or interfering with someone's limited view.

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The crowd was a melange of the more subdued live music attendees who seemed content to let Rouse's beautifully crafted alterna-folk-rock tunes wash over them while they stood in relative stillness, and those who had signed on to the Josh Rouse fan train long enough ago to pepper the quieter between-song moments with top of the lung cries naming old favorite songs ("Sad Eyes!" someone kept pleading for, and the even older "Under Your Charms!"). Rouse, who was sporting a somewhat unfamiliar bushy hair-do and a suit instead of his dark-rimmed glasses and casual nerd-chic garb, seemed genuinely pleased with the audience and their level of response. Having kicked off the second song in his set with a promise that the night was "gonna be sick," he later remarked that he'd recently grown more accustomed to the laissez-faire and somewhat jaded nonchalant pose of the crowds in his new home base borough of Brooklyn.

Although a bit on the corny side, Rouse showed his love for the locals by swapping out places named in his lyrics for "Los Angeles" or "The El Rey" which worked to elicit hoots of approval. He managed to play a hefty chunk of tunes from his recent July release, the cleverly rhymes-with-Rouse Country Mouse, City House (Nettwerk) but did a masterful job of breaking up the set list with a vast majority of songs that his audience--including me and my dopey, blissed out grin--yearned to hear. It's of course hard to call songs that find comfortable slots on stations like KCRW (the evening's sponsor, natch) hits, but much-loved selections like "It's the Nighttime," "Carolina," "Saturday," and "Middle School Frown," from his much-loved 2005 release Nashville essentially qualify as such and sound absolutely terrific live. Minor touches, like the always delightful horns that accent Rouse's songs such as the aforementioned "Love Vibration" were of course missing, but not sorely missed, since the exuberance of Rouse and his band members (the bassist's grin could often rival mine during the course of the show) amply provided a comparable kind of spark to the music.

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I think I hit my apex of schoolgirl giddiness sometime towards the end of the hour-long main set when I heard the tell-tale opening chords of the wistful title track "1972," although a close rival moment would be when he played "Comeback" a few songs before. I also took Rouse up on his suggestion that "if you know the words, sing along." I half expected everyone to flip open their cellphones in a faux-lighter wave-along, but was happy as-is with the number of people who also were singing the beautiful lyrics: "We're going through the changes/Hoping for replacements/Till we find a way out of this hole."

The principal set ended with an energetic rendition of "It's the Nighttime" and then following the obligatory retreat and re-emerge act, Rouse and co. resumed with a five song encore which included and unexpected cover of the theme to Welcome Back, Kotter--a surprisingly good fit for his hallmark singer-songwriter throwback style. A stripped down and acoustic "Winter in the Hamptons" followed, which was the one choice of the performance that most deviated from his album sound. He threw in "Directions" for good measure, a song I recall he confessed to not liking all that much the last time he played LA, and one that goes back to his 2000 release Home, as well as the soundtrack to the film Vanilla Sky. Much to the crowd's pleasure he finished up with a stop-and-start "Sad Eyes" which was heavy on the audience participation.

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Maybe it's because I grew up listening to the gruffly poetic wink-and-a-smile cynicism of Billy Joel that I'm so easily smitten by Rouse's poignant lyrical storytelling and his bounce-up-and-down sound. Maybe it's because he puts on a consistently fun, energetic, and engaging show that takes his album sound to such an immediate level of enjoyment. Maybe it's because he's cursed with the cuteness gene. Maybe it doesn't matter why--he just makes great music that makes me happy. What more could a girl want from a secret boyfriend?

Set list:
"Pilgrim"
"Hollywood Bass Player"
"Givin' It Up"
"Middle School Frown"
"Comeback"
"Snowy"
"Love Vibration"
"Saturday"
"His Majesty Rides"
"God Please Let Me Go Back"
"Carolina"
"My Love Has Gone"
"Sweetie"
"1972"
"Looks Like Love"
"It's the Nighttime"
Encore:
"Winter in the Hamptons"
"Quiet Town"
"Directions"
'Welcome Back"
"Sad Eyes"

Photos by Ryan Jesena for LAist