Review: José González at the 9:30 Club

Review: José González at the 9:30 Club

When discussing a musician of José González’s caliber, it calls to mind the old cliché that the guitar is just an extension of the musician.

José González.
José González. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2015 – Often, DC’s 9:30 Club can bring on the flash and pop when it comes to lighting their shows, though in some cases, it’s the performer’s light crew.

As for the venue itself, the lighting system is not overly complex. But the 9:30 Club’s capacity for putting on a show in their own right that enhances the entertainment on stage is always within their grasp. But they also have a knack for understated delivery, which seems to work best when performers like José González are appearing.

When González is playing his guitar onstage at the 9:30 Club, as he did recently, there’s a single blue stream of light on him at all times. It doesn’t overwhelm his presence, but instead hovers around the artist as if an airy blue aura is enveloping him.

The quality of the lighting is such that it puts the focus solely on its subject without negating the area surrounding him or the crowd in front him, clarifying where the center of gravity and importance lies. And that’s a good thing, as it’s likely González will never quite to this himself.

As González sits on stage playing his guitar, he doesn’t exactly ignore the presence of his audience. But his interaction with them feels almost perfunctory. While he seems to know what he has to do to grease the wheels of the show, this doesn’t grab his full attention.

Instead, he’s pulled in several different directions until he can manage to turn to what he – and everyone else in attendance – was there to see in the first place. When he starts a song and gazes down purposely at his guitar, that’s what everyone waits for incrementally throughout the evening.

Watching José González become one with his guitar onstage, it’s easy to get lost in his playing. Once he starts into a song, it appears that’s all he’s focused on. When discussing a musician of González’s caliber, it calls to mind the old cliché that the guitar is just an extension of the musician. Trite? Maybe. But there’s really not a better way to describe the way González performs.

Calling González a singer/songwriter, though, doesn’t quite feel appropriate. His songs, and especially his voice, fit the atmosphere he creates, a low, consistent hum that remains calm and soothing and never quite extends beyond. When he sings, he can remain on a string throughout his entire set, easing the audience into one song after another.

This almost casual approach creates a sense of ease within the audience, while retaining continuity for the entire time the artist is performing. It’s almost as if he’s giving the audience a template designating the length and breadth of a song as well as how long it might last, enabling them to fade into the sound while remaining serene about the whole scene.

Again, though, this is more or less window dressing for what José González is really focused on during each performance, which is his guitar playing. His ongoing, evenhanded approach can lull audience members into visiting some exotic, hypnotic zone. But even when transported there, it’s hard to lose sight of his guitar playing.

It’s clear that his training and passion springs from classical guitar. But his experience branching out into various forms of rock is also on display, albeit in subtle ways.

As he picks and strums his way through each song, the way he changes pace and tone is straight out of a recognizable pop dynamic. His skill as a guitarist would mean very little without his inherent knack for song structure as well. And that’s a good thing, since he could easily lose any audience member lacking a distinct appreciation for the ins and outs of guitar playing.

It’s this artist’s skill, merged with subtle pop instincts, that made his recent show at the 9:30 Club flow as smoothly as it did. It would be incredibly easy for González to get lost in endless minutia, constantly one upping himself on stage. He’s talented enough to sink the show all by himself by making things more complicated for himself and the audience.

But the streamlined structure he prefers in his songs allows the audience to get lost in his sound just as much as he does as he creates it. It’s that kind of serene journey that José González invites his audience to join when he performs.

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