Josh Rouse / Aimee Mann- Park West (Chicago, IL)
Josh Rouse’s recent performances with a full band, such as his showcase at this year’s South By Southwest music conference, have been about as engaging as a Senate subcommittee hearing on retail sales tax adjustments, beset by underdeveloped melodies, lightweight vocals and a woeful lack of stage presence. Which made his fine duo performance with Lampchop multi-instrumentalist Dennis Cronin on this night a pleasant surprise.
The pair debuted material from a new EP, Chester, a collaboration between Rouse and Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner. Cronin, who also played on the EP, proved an exceptional accompanist, adding splashes of color that greatly enhanced Rouse’s canvas without muddying the compositions.
On the beautiful “That’s What I Know”, Rouse sang lead and strummed an acoustic guitar while Cronin gracefully alternated between trumpet and xylophone. On other songs, Cronin deftly played melodica and added golden notes from a muted trumpet.
A few songs into his set, Rouse quipped, “This is probably the classiest joint I’ve played. I usually play to audiences about the size of the waitstaff here.” The hyper-attentive Park West crowd appreciated Rouse’s music, but his attempts to interact verbally with the audience were awkward. Overall, though, his suggested Rouse is headed down a road far more challenging (for him) and intriguing (for the listener) than his 1998 Slow River debut, Dressed Up Like Nebraska.
Headliner Aimee Mann played pared-down arrangements as well, backed by a keyboardist and a guitarist who occasionally switched to percussion. Mann clearly felt at home in this quiet setting, probably because it is a bit like Largo, the intimate Los Angeles club where she frequently performs with her husband, songwriter Michael Penn. Mann’s trio format put the focus squarely on her lyrics and showed that the former ‘Til Tuesday bassist/vocalist is a master of the bitter kiss-off tune.
The crowd sat stone silent as Mann sang, “You delivered that blow/But it left a mark on me that you’re not seeing/And I don’t know what else you hear/But it’s not me weeping.” Those choice lines are from “I Should’ve Known”, one of the few songs for which Mann traded her acoustic guitar for an electric bass — to great effect. The setlist was culled mainly from Mann’s solo discs — 1993’s Whatever and 1995’s brilliant I’m With Stupid — but also included material from her as-yet-unreleased third disc.