[23 February 2009]
There’s nothing wrong with being an artist who excels at cover versions, but there is something to be said for someone who can take another artist’s song and place so strong a personal twist on it that it transcends mere imitation and becomes almost a new piece in it’s own right. Whereas my younger, snobbier self would have turned up his nose at an artist primarily known for his covers, let alone one who came to prominence through a Sony commercial, I am mature enough nowadays to embrace an artist on the grounds of their music alone.
So I found myself at the unusually conservative, for me at least, Recital Hall, which is generally reserved for String Quartets and other people who perform in suits. Not exactly rock ‘n’ roll, but possibly the best venue Sydney can offer an artist utilizing only vocals, acoustic guitar, and a drummer using congas and foot drums. Although the presence of ushers and allocated seating were novel for someone more used to cramming into sweaty bars, I was willing to give this more civilised approach to music-viewing a try. It is certainly a hell of a lot more comfortable.
In keeping with the subdued theme of the evening, support act Luluc were suitably reserved, being just one woman, one man, and two guitars. They were possibly the most traditionally “folk” act I have ever seen, complete with earnest, Joan Baez-type front woman Zoë Randell. Supporting her was band mate Steve Hassett, and together the two made a lilting and resonant sound. The problem I had with the show was more to do with the material, which was comprised of a series of corny metaphors beautifully sung.
The folk affectations came thick and fast, far too much guitar tuning between songs, and banter about buying 120 year old guitars off eBay. I got the impression that the band was somewhat awkward or especially nervous about this performance, which is understandable given the standing of the headline act, however they will do themselves a world of good if they spend less time fiddling with their guitars on stage, and stop writing songs with vaguely innocuous metaphors about suitcases.
By the time José González was ready to arrive on stage the hall had packed out to capacity. From the opening note it was clear that Gonzalez was giving his all, as his guitar strings screeched, tripping over themselves to produce the notes he demanded of them. Even these seeming glitches were nuanced and placed, giving the music an urgency that it would have lacked if played straight.
Against a stunningly stark backdrop of naked fir trees in snow, and highlighted by an innovative lighting setup, González seemed to be playing his heart out to a wildly appreciative crowd. It wasn’t long before he introduced his two fellow performers, who complimented the stark performance with a highly restrained accompaniment, as if to underline the vocals and guitar work of González without ever competing with it. Particularly intense was tonight’s version of “Crosses”, with the stings on the guitar again being tortured into emitting painfully urgent notes into the cavernous hall.
But all was not darkness and intense beauty; at times González provided some welcome comic relief, such as when he re-emerged for an encore, having just left the audience devastated by his take on Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”. González took his seat and, while tuning his instrument, announced, “I was going to get a midget to tune my guitar.” After some surprised and muffled laughter from the crowd, he dryly stated, “Not cool.”
I feel like apologizing for my opening lines, as González has a lot more to offer than simply cover versions of other artist’s work; he has authored a rich vein of material himself. However, it is his cover versions that truly shine, such is the force of their transformative power. Even when he turns his hand to the hysterically pop “Hand On Your Heart” by Australia’s own Kylie Minogue, he emerges from the other side with a song rich in longing, desire, and pain. Imagine the devastation if he had fulfilled my deepest wish and ripped the audience to shreds with his poignant cover of “Love Will Tear Us Apart”.