As part of a highly anticipated (in our household at least!) six-date UK tour, the honey-voiced guitar virtuoso José González carried an audience to bliss and back at Glasgow’s O2 Academy this weekend.
The Swedish singer-songwriter, a quietly prolific force on the indie folk scene for nearly two decades, seemed delighted to be reconnecting with his steady fanbase with a cautiously celebratory attitude that we are finally on the other side of the pandemic. While González’s work runs the gamut of human experience–exploring lows of mental health struggles and the dizzying highs of romantic love alike–the man is clearly in a contented space. And with a stellar new album, Local Valley, to be proud of, as well as a beautiful young daughter and talented life-partner (artist Hannele Fernström, who did all the artwork for the new record) it’s no wonder why. Local Valley is becoming fast-regarded as José’s best, most nuanced work to date, and he was beaming to share it on the stage, which translated to an extremely joyful concert experience and a very special evening of music.
On Sunday night, the understated, post-war venue took on a somehow outdoor vibe, with its towering canopied ceiling, folding chairs cascading across the ground floor, and everyone staying bundled up in their winter-best against the ventilated chill of open windows and doors. This camping feel was only enhanced by a projected backdrop of inverted trees splashed behind the stage. Considering how attuned the evening’s headliner appears to be with nature, drawing particular inspiration in his latest release from the environment and animal kingdom, the scene couldn’t have been more fitting.
Warming up the brisk room for the main event was opening act Group Listening, an experimental jazz duo consisting of Stephen Black and Paul Jones on piano and clarinet respectively. Facing each on stage in a harmonious counter-balance stance, taking cues from one other to remain utterly in-sync, the pair launched into a clean 5-song. Pieces from their forthcoming no-nonsense title Clarinet & Piano: Selected Works, Vol. 2 (a follow-up to their similarly titled Vol 1). The first song “Sunset Village” set the tone perfectly for their niche style of “ambient re-workings of electronic classics” with an utterly soul-soothing melody, the dual instruments blending seamlessly to create an acoustic lullaby.
Their entire set was very peaceful and smooth, lovely and uplifting instrumental call and response interspersed with deadpan commentary by the unconventional band. From a cleverly mic’ed metronome setting the pace and rhythm for a hypnotic track, to garbled archival audio adding an element of unsettled intimacy, the set was varied and utterly unique. Their final song dissolved into the sound of water droplets, reinforcing the evening’s elemental theme nicely.
Against a royal blue backdrop of a nights sky, amidst the soft buzz of the auditorium and a soft rolling fog, José González walked onto stage, softly gripping the attention of everyone in the diverse audience and promptly started playing a commanding performance of “With the Ink of a Ghost.” As the layered guitar picking and the man’s recognisable, resonant vocals inflated to fill the room, González somehow managed to project the feeling of an intimate bar venue in the 2000-seat venue. Brilliant finger-picked guitar sounding out with his uniquely recognisable vocals. The presence of sound instantly tracked as magically so much larger than what a single artist should be able to produce, and the light echoing of every strum filled out like an entire string section. The soft-handed lighting went to work set the perfect mood, dimming as if to highlight intricate riffs and casting a fantastic radiance against the singer’s dark features.
José loaded the first part of the set with tunes from his earlier albums and EPs, familiar favourites like an emotionally charged rendition of “Crosses” and the carefully measured “Lovestain”, a spartan soliloquy with a foot- and fret-tapping structure, before launching into some highlights from the new album. The first of these was the wonderful, even foot-stompier eponymous “Valle Local”, a sizzling masterclass in Classical Spanish guitar with lyrics to match, drawing on González’s Argentinian roots. I was surprised to realize, in fact, that this is his first offering with words from his two mothertongues, Swedish and Spanish, which truly adds a new level to his body of work and fleshes out his identity as a songwriter all the more profoundly.
González kept the linguistic love going with instant classic “El Invento”, a wonderful track in traditional tones merged with the repetitive somnambulant qualities of his unique style, every inch as powerful and sweet as on the vinyl version. The rainy day musings of “Visions” translated seamlessly to musical bliss, and the journey into Local Valley hit its absolute crescendo with a triptych of tracks: “The Void”, “Horizons” and “Head On”. González prefaced this threefold offering by giving a glimpse into the influence for these songs, comparing them to familiar phases of life: first hopelessness of loss, which eventually gives way to the opportunity for new possibilities, and finally the moment of action when things finally move along. During the piece the woodland scene behind burst to life with animated stars ambiently cascading forward. In the magical guitar flourishes as he sang, “To be at peace/ With and without”, Northern Lights danced in the sky, and we were utterly transfixed.
After this stunning segment, and the fastest tune-down ever, the musician offered the audience a release by inviting them to sing along to the much-loved hit “Heartbeats”, which united the crowd in soft recitation. Perhaps even better received was the new bouncy, tropical number “Swing” which got the audience clapping along to the beat cast over wondrously looping vocals compelling us to “Move, move, move your body buddy”, whistling, snapping and a show of complete mastery of his instrument. As if no time at all had passed, the set found itself winding down with a comforting cover of “Blackbird”, that had everyone singing along further.
José left the stage to the dismay of everyone, but happily returned for a juicy encore starting with “Tjomme”, a Swedish-language groove about all manner of “dudes”. Pixelated stars, the kind you see when you rub your eyes crashed on the screen behind, and eventually gave way to a line-drawing projection of González moving and grooving in realtime. González clearly didn’t want to evening to end, throwing in Junip track, “Line of Fire”, as well as a Paul Simon cover before the sublime penultimate song “Killing for Love”. As the tune was driving, building and magnifying, one couldn’t help but be left agog at how he could very mearly play a duet with himself on a single guitar neck, filling the role of rhythm section and soloist simultaneously as a macro view of his fast vibrating strings filled the screen behind him.
Closing with one last shot of the new album, the audience was left well and truly in his pocket and greedily wanting more even after such a sumptuous auditory feast. Watching José González work live is definitely an experience that is not to be missed!