One of the highlights of SXSW this year was seeing Josh Rouse from the front row at the Paste party on Sixth Street; my biggest regret was only seeing him once. I got home from Austin and I bought this ticket, even though I’d heard that the City Winery was a terrible place to see a show. Those reports are exaggerated. No it’s not a rock club, it’s an upscale, sit down venue. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to sit. Especially when you happen to know the people right next to you. I bought the ticket I did because it was closest to the stage, I certainly wasn’t expecting to hear “Hey, isn’t that Kiki?” as the hostess showed me to my seat. I don’t even remember where I first met these guys, but it is worth noting that I have also shared a table with them at the Old Town School of Folk, which works the same way, and ran into them in the middle of a baseball field during a Bob Dylan show in Schaumberg IL. I ordered a beaker of wine and the braised duck tacos. Sure, my tab was forty bucks, but the tacos were good and the wine, which lasted till the end of the show, was made there.
I paused after two tacos so as not to be rude when Field Report was playing. I didn’t have to wait long to finish my meal, they didn’t play any more than twenty minutes and we argued over whether it had been four or five songs. “Well, there was the slow one, and then two more slow ones, another slow one and then the last one, which was slow,” joked my tablemate. And while he’s not far off, slow and mellow should not be confused with boring. Lead singer/guitarist Chris Portersfield has an intoxicating voice, and their songs a dreamlike quality aided by the skilled, completely unassuming looking, musicians in the band. I hope the Milwaukee band is given more time at other stops on the tour because they deserve it. It may have just been luck that the relatively new, buzz gathering, Field Report snagged this tour gig or it might have been destiny. Portersfield opened their set by explaining he had won over his wife by giving her Rouse’s Cold Blue Stars for her birthday, even though she was dating someone else at the time. I’m not surprised, Rouse’s third record is pretty amazing.
I wasn’t expecting to hear much from his first four records, an arc that peaked with 1972, a near-perfect record, but he surprised me. The gorgeous title track from Stars showed up in the middle of the set, as well as three tracks from the decade old 1972 which were scattered throughout the set. Those songs along with a surprising “Dressed up like Nebraska,” from his debut record of the same name, were my favorite moments of the night. The inclusion of the latter on a New Music Monthly sampler was what got me listening to Rouse in the first place, and hearing those opening notes was like stepping into a time machine. The trio from 1972, “Flight Attendant,” the hooky “Love Vibration,” and the wistful title track, made me so happy I thought I would cry. I didn’t, but I did sing along to every word, especially the backing vocals to the second where the band echoes his “You people all know what I’m talking about” with “yeah, you people all know what’s he’s talking about.” Rouse smiled and encouraged the crowd to join in.
As much as I loved Rouse in the beginning, I fell out of love over the course of the next four records, the first couple (Nashville and Subtitulo) I listened to only a handful of times, the next I didn’t even bother buying. It seemed he had gotten boring. Tonight he played a handful of songs from those records which seemed to support my earlier assessment. Only “It’s the Nightime Baby” stood out for me, though the rest of the crowd got pretty excited about them. He’d moved to Spain at this point and didn’t play the States much, I didn’t miss him. I thought we were done. That changed when I saw him at the Yep Roc 15th Anniversary shows in North Carolina. I went from ambivalent to swooning in three minutes after he opened with “1972,” a song I’d had stuck in my head all day. I downloaded his last record, I contributed to his Pledge Music campaign, and I haven’t stopped listening to the new record since it came out.
My Best of 2013 list is already shaping up to be quite a battle. I declared Water Liars the early winner, but that was before the Features released their record, before I discovered the Veils and Ezra Furman. With Ha Ha Tonka and Chris Mills both releasing excellent records, that I’ve been lucky enough to hear already, later this year, who knows who will come out on top. I do know that Rouse’s Happiness Waltz has a pretty good chance, especially if I go purely on play amount. “This Movie’s Way Too Long,” “Julie Come Out of the Rain,” “A Lot Like Magic” and a reworked version of “Simple Pleasures” were all great. Sure his music tends toward the easy listening side of the spectrum, but it is too damn good to lump in with that crowd. Other than one patron who didn’t seem to realize that the City Winery wasn’t the sort of place where you kick off your flip flops and put your feet on the edge of the stage, the audience was engaged, respectful and enthusiastic. The City Winery was the perfect place to see Josh Rouse. So perfect in fact I wish I’d gone both nights.