Live Review: José González @ The Orpheum, Vancouver - April 23rd 2024

Live Review: José González @ The Orpheum, Vancouver – April 23rd 2024

In an industry that so often hinges on flash, one-upmanship, and the pressure to cultivate a memorable image, celebrated musician José González has always remained sedately himself. After two decades as an artist, a point where many of his peers would seek to reinvent or dream up bigger and better stage shows, the prolific indie folk artist doesn’t need to put on the facade of greatness–he is just great. 

This couldn’t be better summed up by a performance at the prestigious and regal venue that is Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre in which González sits humble and alone on a small island on the stage with an unfussy set-up, letting the beautiful venue speak for itself. He simply settles in to share his gifted guitaring and arresting voice with a full house, filling the hall with all the power of a full-on symphony.

For this same reason, it is so fitting that González is currently celebrating his original iconic album, Veneer, with a twentieth-anniversary tour. He named the album for the songs it contains which centre around the theme of illusions, he explains: “Things not being what they seem to be, or pretending that you are someone that you’re not.” 

In his keen songwriting, González has sought to explore every corner of his being as a first-generation Swede of Argentinian descent. From the cerebral influences of his early writing to the earthy sway of his later releases, the artist has never failed to strike a chord of utter humanity with his avid fanbase. González seems to be taking a moment of reflection with the release of his remastered first album that includes live recordings. During the performance, he reflected that “I was a different person then, so a lot of these songs are about heartbreaks, relationships, inner struggles…” While he may have progressed beyond these, the universal themes will continue to resonate with listeners new and old.

In the first of what you could call a concert in three acts, José set out to make good on his promise to revisit Veneer in its entirety, if not in order. He marked the beginning of his journey by starting with the two oldest songs “Hints” and “Dead Weight”. In driving rhythmic patterns, González summoned that incredible magic that only he can manifest as he has mastered playing two guitar parts on half of the strings simultaneously, his fingers working the frets like a pianist. 

Reading classical guitar through his unmistakable modern songwriting vision, he worked his acoustic magnificently as he weaved his way from strength to strength. It was quiet enough to hear his shoe tapping on the bare stage, serving as the hollow drumbeat in song after song. With the unfussiness of a coffee shop performance, José took his time to re-tune without haste before eliciting mighty cheers for crowd favourites like “Lovestain” and “Crosses”. Each concise tune would end precisely at its fulfillment, not wandering or lingering unnecessarily.

In “All You Deliver”, González plucked his guitar so dramatically that some flourishes were startling, the rich tone sounding out thrillingly deep. He pulled out some sonic wizardry while tapping the concise rhythm of the song’s conclusion upon the body of the guitar, somehow making it boom out as textured as a bass drum. The mystical arpeggios of “Stay in the Shade” underpinned his pleasing vocals, so clear in the exceptional sound of the room. And his voice got a little lift from a backing vocalist seamlessly melding harmonies into his melody from a discreet placement in the wings during “Remain”. And of course, he completed his journey into Veneer with the cover so embraced that many know it only as José’s: “Heartbeat”.

“It’s a short album. I don’t know what we were thinking, me and my manager” González joked as he came to the end. “It was twenty years ago that we released that album…we should do something. A tour? Sure. But it’s 35 minutes long! So I’ve done what we used to do back then…we just filled out with EPs and covers.”

In the second act, we were treated to a taste from his band, Junip, and a curated selection of his most notable covers, spanning everyone from Joy Division to Kylie Minogue. Given his penchant for covers, it seems a natural progression too that he has recently released a deluxe version of his triumphant fourth studio album, Local Valley, which invites remixes and collaborations with other artists.

You could tell that each song held a special place in his heart, or brought him back to a moment in time, furthering his moment of reflection. For example “Kathy’s Song” by Paul Simon represented his time as a biochemist, as his lab partner would often play it as they worked. In a Massive Attack cover, the musician finally started to break from the confines of his pure and unadulterated sound, placing an ethereal echo affection on the mic. I was amazed by the big sound coming out of so small a setup, my head swimming in the mesmerizing music.

In his final encore act, González resolved to play one song each from his three other albums. Choosing “Cycling Trivialities”, the man teased out the song’s astonishing guitar line, further inspiring awe as to how he holds all these complex melodies so solidly in those gifted hands.

In “Leaf Off / The Cave”, he continued to expand the play with distortion and delay on the mic to a psychedelic effect. He pulled in a backing track to support his latest original of the night, “Tjomme”, its pulsing Latino beat bringing the party in José’s own muted way. 

While the fantastic artist fulfilled what he set out to do, I would have happily continued the retrospective for hours into the night, delving into the musical expanse of his body of work. This little cross-section will have to satiate for now until the next anniversary rolls around.

Set List

Deadweight on Velveteen
Slow Moves
Save Your Day
All You Deliver
Stay in the Shade
Broken Arrows
Heartbeat (The Knife cover)
Love Will Tear Us Apart  (Joy Division cover)
Line of Fire  (Junip song)
Kathy’s Song  (Paul Simon cover)
Hand on Your Heart  (Kylie Minogue cover)
Teardrop  (Massive Attack cover)
Cycling Trivialities
Leaf Off / The Cave

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