Jay Brannan could have been juggling or spinning plates or reading your favorite section of the Yellow Pages. He could have done nothing at all except stand there with his guitar, alone on the Paradise Rock Club stage in a gray T-shirt and jeans, and just smiled.
It wouldn't have mattered. The audience had come to see someone they don't truly know but feel like they do. And it's easy to see how they got that impression.
Outside of New York, where Brannan lives, people know him first as an actor who costarred in John Cameron Mitchell's "Shortbus" in 2006. This is a family paper, so suffice it to say that Brannan's big scene involved two other men, some awkward conversation, and a spirited rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
As a solo artist, Brannan is very much a work in progress, vulnerable and a bit naive. He's making up the rules as he goes, and you want to root for him. He posts YouTube videos of himself, sleepy-eyed and sometimes shirtless in the wee hours, singing his sad songs without a hint of irony. Just a boy and his guitar - and a transparent awareness of his charms.
Sure, it's voyeuristic, but still compelling, and it doesn't come with the guilt of watching, say, Amy Winehouse's every destructive move. Brannan's star is on the ascent, and you - yes, you, the guy at home on his laptop - get to be a part of it. You get to see how the house is being built.
In fact, Brannan needs an audience. Bad. Who else was going to swoon at the Paradise Friday night when Brannan flashed his boyish smile and confessed he was really nervous? It was the first stop on his longest tour yet: 10 dates. He's used to playing maybe four shows in a row, and since he's new to all of this, he was incredulous so many people came to see him.
So he did his best and aimed to please, playing audience requests for "Housewife" ("I wanna be a housewife/ What's so wrong with that?") and a humorous, acoustic take on hip-hop group N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" (adapted from Nina Gordon's rendition).
When he started to sing "Soda Shop," a fan favorite since it was featured in "Shortbus," the audience went straight into singalong mode. "Why are you guys pretending to know my [stuff]?" Brannan demanded.
That self-deprecation, which was hard to believe at times, was matched only by his fans' tendency to overstate his talents. "Oh, my God. It just occurred," said the guy behind me. "He's my Tori Amos."
No, he's not, but that's a good thing. Nor is he Ani DiFranco, with whom he shares a confessional songwriting bent. But Brannan himself acknowledged his place after an endearingly earnest cover of DiFranco's "Both Hands." He asked the crowd not to tell her about it because he'd like to open for her someday. "She'll open for you," came the audience shout-out. Brannan was bemused. "OK, that's the funniest thing I've ever heard in my life," he quipped. "That's like saying I'm going to heaven someday. It's ludicrous."
Chris Pureka, lugging her guitar all the way from Northampton, opened with a set of heartfelt songs just as forlorn as the coming attractions. "I'm gonna close with my happy song," she said cheerfully, before launching into yet another sad one. "Gotta have a happy song." Yeah, but not at this show.
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.