“Och wise up!” chimes a female voice from a few rows back. Josh Rouse – smartly dressed in double denim and a dapper hat, gifted with a sweet, sleepy voice – has just announced that he is about to play his last song, and has been roundly chastised in the most affectionate way possible. The fact that the end of Rouse’s gig has been met with such a fine example of the Northern Irish vernacular should indicate how warmly his performance has been received. There is, to reach for that hoary cliché, a lot of love in the room – there are few things more heartening to witness an assembly of people who have gathered together with the express intention of listening to music that they really like, played by an artist that they really like.
Nonetheless, up until the point that Rouse is told to catch himself on, he makes every effort to win over the audience. Performing with just one other musician, the enviably gifted Xema Fuertes (who at one point plays guitar and drums at the same time), he runs through a varied selection of songs from his extensive back catalogue. Rouse’s influences are clearly diverse, as there are more nods than from a wee toy dog on the parcel shelf of a Reliant Robin. Some tracks flirt with Dylan (there’s a fair bit of harmonica) while others have the sound of Jackson Browne if he was into the soundtracks to ‘70s bad cop thrillers. Mostly, however, it is a confection of laidback balladry. Unsurprisingly, there are several cuts from his latest album The Embers Of Time, a more introspective and downbeat effort, yet it is cheering to also hear tracks from two of his best full-lengths, Nashville and 1972. ‘Flight Attendant’ is just as wistfully melancholy as on record. ‘It’s The Night-time’ is pure pop in the most generous, un-cynical sense of the description. The guitars on ‘Winter In The Hamptons’ sounds like early Smiths. The audience inside this intimate venue lap up each offering, particularly during a fantastic singalong of ‘Love Vibration’ when Rouse un-jacks his guitar and weaves his way, minstrel style, through the crowd.
It is hard to think of many other locations where such a thing, just one bespoke event in a series of bespoke events organised by the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, would work as well – full credit to the organisers for arranging and permitting such a freewheeling performance, and full credit to Rouse for delivering it. Ross Thompson
Photos by Sara Marsden