Live Music + Gig Reviews

José González @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

28 May 2015

José González José González, the Swedish folk troubadour of Argentine descent, is one of the few musicians out there who consistently records cover songs that sound better than their originals. But he is not just a covers act – he is able to write an original folk song that stays with you for hours after you hear it. Since releasing his first album Veneer in 2003, he has established himself as one of the great song interpreters.

Tonight, his cover of Kylie Minogues Put Your Hand On Your Heart is almost unrecognisable, sounding more sombre and thoughtful than the original Stock Aitken Waterman pop number. González has an uncanny knack of transforming songs, and making them his own by adding a suitable dose of melancholy.

He is greeted with audience approbation on his return to London. Tonight’s show is precedes his Primavera Sound set in Barcelona, and the Shepherd’s Bush Empire complements González’s music well – it’s small enough to feel intimate, yet large enough to bring out the atmosphere in his songs. If general audience hubbub rose to too great a level in between songs, people would angrily make ‘shush’ sounds. And rightly so – González’s music demands your undivided attention. His ability to dazzle an audience with only a guitar and his voice is something many musicians covet.

Killing For Love, a shuffly track off his second album, In Our Nature, showcases his complex guitar playing well. Fans of González’s full band Junip were happy to hear Walking Lightly, where the percussionists played a big role. Later on in the show, another side to his work was represented by the soft hum of The Nest, another track off In Our Nature that was written with Little Dragon singer Yukimi Nagano.

One of González’s more obscure influences is Arthur Russell, an experimental musician who found most of his fame through the 1970s-’80s New York disco movement. González’s lovely cover of Russell’s This is How We Walk On The Moo’ changed the pace of the show – González maintained Russell’s dance sensibilities in his version, with a techno bass drum in the background. A clarinet player accompanying added some smooth layers to the cover. Although González’s version of Massive Attack’s Teardrop wasn’t that different to the original, it was refreshing hearing a male voice sing over it – a contrast to Tracey Thorn‘s seminal vocal.

A mid-set performance of Crosses sent chills down spines. As soon as the third chord of the song was played, people went quiet. They didn’t need to be told. Some of the tracks González played off his most recent album, Vestiges & Claws, amongst them Stories We Build, Stories We Tell and Leaf Off/The Cave, received good feedback from the audience, with the latter raising spirits and wrapping up the encore.

But the moment everyone had been waiting for was Heartbeats, González’s famous cover of The Knife‘s track. Much softer than his compatriots’ version, replacing heavy synths with tender acoustic guitars, it resonated with most of the crowd.

With González playing such gentle and melancholy music, it is easy to forget he came from quite different musical beginnings, playing in two hardcore punk bands in the ’90s. But tonight’s performance made it clear that José González was destined to play his own particular brand of soothing, chilled out folk music.

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More on José González
José González @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London
José González – Vestiges & Claws
José González – Veneer
José González @ Union Chapel, London
José González – In Our Nature