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Boys Like Girls frontman Martin Johnson has traded his mid-Noughties, emo-pop; for the heartland rock and new wave stylings of the ‘80s with his latest project, The Night Game. And if ever there was a stigma in loving mullets, big airy guitar solos and awkward dancing in the dark, the packed-out room at the El Rey on Wed. Mar. 21, weren’t having a bar of it.

When he sang his re-imagined version of Kygo's electro track “Kids In Love,” we wondered ‘Richard Marx is that you?’ We experienced a severe pang for stiff, blue-washed denim against our nape. Oh, we were less cynical back then. By going back to the very essence of what made Johnson fall in love with music – standing in front of the mirror as a kid practicing those Springsteen moves - he took us all back to a collective, simpler time.

The evening started out with openers The Band Camino whose Wombats-like synth melodies got the early crowd sufficiently warmed up. The young Memphis band have been raking up the streams on Spotify charts with "My Thoughts On You" and "2/14," sharing a sound that recalls Matt Healey's 1975. The Band Camino appeared fully-formed and at ease onstage and already had the swagger of minor rock stars offstage.

When the headliners hit with "American Nights" - a  song with John Cougar Mellencamp in its vocal DNA and Steve Winwood in its musical arrangement- the air was electric. The room was now packed and with a fair share of die-hards from Johnson's first band. They've continued following his career; from after Boys Like Girls' last tour to when he started co-writing songs with Taylor Swift and Blink 182, as well as and producing for Top 10 artists like Avril Lavigne. These fans lapped up his new direction. Camped upfront, they had been to a number of The Night Game's previous LA shows, including his opening slot for John Mayer last Summer, at the Forum. They knew lyrics to many of the songs, though no release date has been officially announced for his debut album.

Next came another ear-worm: "Once In A Lifetime," a recently released single that tells of his flight from New York during a destructive, low-point in his life. Then it was a showcase for his pipes with the ballad "Die A Little." Hands crossed behind his back, he sailed through falsettos as the guitar fills from Australian pop iconoclast, Kirin J Callinan amplified the raw emotions. Callinan, an accomplished solo artist in his own right has been crucial to the sound of The Night Game. He had an impressive V-shaped rig that resembled pelicans in flight. Callinan played the scores of pedals like they were a whole other instrument in between his balletic moves, and with soccer cleats on, no less. The chemistry and onstage antics between Johnson and Callinan was an added highlight.

Johnson then spelled out the litany of misgivings that road life entails, only to crescendo with such glee singing "I'm getting back in the van. I'm heading back on the highway." You knew misgivings he might have had producing other people's songs, writing other people's stories and whatever fork in the roads he might have unwittingly gone down, he's checked out of the 9 to 5 and is right where he now wants to be. 

The Night Game's set was all about pacing, control and showcasing Johnson's varied talents. Be it telling compelling stories of failed romances ("The Photograph" and "Do You Think About Us"), or heroes unmoored by self-doubt ("The Outfield") and troubling demons ("Once In A Lifetime") - he was connected to every note, hook and melody. And while the songs evoke '80s nostalgia, they aren't retro. The Night Game was magpie in its approach but modern as Johnson understands his way around a studio. He was also specific in how these songs were recorded: Outboard synths and guitars that employed pedals for effects, not 'drag and drop' samples. 

Towards the end of a satisfying show when he even covered a little of Annie Lennox's "No More I Love You's", Johnson said: “I know there’s only four songs out," and pointed to an audience upfront "but you already know the words to all of them." He added: “But the record’s coming out in June.” Everyone clapped and cheered. You heard it here first. Now, let's get back to awkward dancing in the dark.  

Set List

“American Nights”

“Once In A Lifetime”

“Die A Little”

“Back In The Van”

“Kids In Love No”/”More I Love You's” (Annie Lennox cover)

“Do You Think About Us”

“Man In The Mirror” (Michael Jackson cover)

“Photograph”

“The Outfield”

“Bad Girls Don't Cry”