I’ve been listening to Mia Doi Todd much longer than I’ve been listening to José González, and while I was eager to see the brilliant Yale-educated Butoh dancer sing her melancholy lullabies, I was a little disappointed that she was opening for the new star of minimalist folk. Taken together, though, the two were a perfect post-World Music ticket — the half-Japanese Todd and the Swedish-born Argentinean González both lay bare their multicultural roots with gentle instrumentation that hints at a world of influence while each remaining idiosyncratic musicians in her or his own right. Both flesh out their subtle sounds with poetic words that probe the difficulties of 21st-century love and morality without pandering to sentimentality or cliché. Okay, they do, on occasion, pander to sentimentality and cliché — but not enough to undermine the sophisticated simplicity of their music. I caught the earlier of two shows along with the date crowd, who indulged in filet mignon and fingerling potatoes while listening to the perfect soundtrack for making eyes and intelligent conversation. One topic on everyone’s lips was the greenness of the tour: carbon neutral and chock full of biodegradable replacements for the usual pile of plastic used by bands and crews, José González’s “In Our Nature” tour is run in conjunction with Reverb, a non-profit group that promotes environmentally-friendly music tours, the general sentiment being “hear music, do some good.” Mia Doi Todd brought to the stage Beat-era ’50s conga drums and a harmonium played with bare feet that recalled the sounds of the ’60s; yet somehow her performance existed outside of era and genre. With a voice a shade darker than honey — molasses, perhaps, or burnt sugar — Todd, accompanied only by a turtle-necked percussionist switching between congas, bells, and the box, sang tender melodies from her recent release, Gea. Simple and pared down, her set was sparse and lush at once. The poetic complexity of her lyrics layered over simple instrumentation has at times left me breathless, but her best work was left by the wayside tonight as she introduced newer material to an audience that had trotted out primarily for Mr. Gonzalez. González began his set alone, the backlighting presenting him like an afro nestling with a guitar. His songs are tiny, plaintive gems, beginning quietly and ending suddenly. I was surprised that, when transplanted to the live environment, most of his songs were the same — earnest and economical, with little expansion of his graceful guitar beyond the confines of the album tracks. The songs lumbered along, one after the other, with the occasional unintelligible mumble or guitar tuning to interrupt the steady flow of three-minute tunes. In spite of the beauty of songs like “Crosses” and “Hand on Your Heart”, this slow formula grew tedious at times. I imagine a conversation with him would be the same — a moment of poetry followed by an awkward silence. I wasn’t sure if I wanted the nuggets of music to linger so that I could savor the gentle rhythms of the guitar and González’s reedy voice, or if I wanted the next song to interrupt and introduce a new rhythm. Songs that picked up the tempo even for a moment, like “Killing for Love”, offered relief from the anesthetic pacing, but came too late in the show. When his accompaniment stepped onto the stage to clap hands, sing harmonies, and play, yes, more congas, it was a welcome switch-up. Still, González’s fame is built on his covers, and the spare acoustic renderings of electronic ballads “Heartbeats” (by fellow Swedes the Knife) and “Teardrop” (by Massive Attack) did not disappoint.
For me, the high point of his show occurred in the dark corner bar, where I leaned with other standing-room-only stragglers. During González’s “In Our Nature”, a set of well-dressed gay men began to mouth along mightily, as if it were their new anthem. Perhaps, in this post-Rove era, they were searching for a kinder, gentler theme song than “It’s Raining Men”. And maybe that’s precisely why González hits so well at the present moment — the consistency of his gentle earnestness. By the time I left the Highline, the block was taken over by a line of people waiting for the later show, many of whom were shivering, having overestimated the promise of spring. Although I had become fidgety in the midst of González’s set, I left envying the couple of hours they would get to spend under the spell cast by both troubadours.