José González @ The Institute 14th December 2015

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José González rounds out his European tour with a date with his adoring Birmingham fans. Who have packed out the Institute on a rainy Monday night to see the Swedish folk singer/songwriter show off his guitar playing prowess and unique voice. Having not listened to him since he’s début album, I had only really heard his stuff from film soundtracks and even a game soundtrack, any fans of the game Red Dead Redemption will have heard the brilliant ‘Far Away’ and his work has appeared on numerous adverts and TV shows.

José appears at precisely 9pm and after a quick hello he jumps straight into one of his better known songs ‘Crosses’. Alone on the stage with a single light on him, with a minimal amount of fake smoke, it’s clear that tonight’s show will be just about the music. It’s also already clear what a talent José is, he plays the guitar with such ease and his voice sounds brilliant in a live setting and, in my opinion, better than it does on record.

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José brings out his backing band for the second song, which is a pleasant surprise, as i was half expecting the set to just be José playing solo. Rather than overpower José, the backing band mainly add various rhythmic devices, whether that is claps, clicks or the sharp crack of the snare drum rim as well some brilliant three part harmonies. Added to the fact that José uses his guitar to create a percussive sound, the backing band adds numerous layers to his music. It sounds great, each clap and hit reverberate throughout the Institute, which is the quietest I’ve ever heard it which certainly makes a nice change. Rather than hear a plethora of flat singalongs and badly timed claps, the audience stands in silence as they listen to José do his thing.

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Having  made a habit of performing covers throughout his career; breakout single and best known song ‘Heartbeats’ was originally by fellow swedes The Knife, and ‘Teardrop’ originally by Massive Attack are both well known. But a song that appears early in his set is ‘Hand On Your Heart’ a cover of Kylie Minogue, of all people, I’m a little ashamed to say i didn’t even know it existed. But, what better way to first hear it than here tonight, José completely makes this song his own. Which, of course, is what a cover should be, as it couldn’t be any further from Kylie’s polished pop hit. It’s stripped back, original and the feel of the song is completely changed.

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This is why José is still packing out venues like this, everything he makes is unashamedly José, he’s found a formula and he is sticking with it. There is influences from various different parts of the music world ‘Killing For Love’ has a definite Latin feel to it, there’s some songs with a more indie feel to them, there’s songs that feel simple but others feel more grandiose, but at the end of the day it’s still obviously José. ‘Every Age’ is simple but feels epic due to the instrumentation, the reverb on the drums and José’s voice. It also shows off some of his lyricism, which is filled with imagery and metaphors “Every age has its turn. Every brand of the tree has to learn, learn to grow, find its way, make the best of this short-lived stay”.

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There is time for keyboardist James Mathé, who is a London based singer/songwriter in his own right, going by the moniker ‘Barbarossa’ to play a song off his third album ‘Imager’. ‘Home’ features José on the album and sees him come in on the last verse to add some delicious harmonies over James’ voice. It’s a nice way to break up the set before José takes centre stage for ‘This Is How We Walk On The Moon’ another cover from an unlikely source, Arthur Russell, the song appeared on a benefit CD last year. José again makes it his own as it sounds completely different to original, the jaunty yet minimalistic original is turned into a slowly growing, smoothly flowing acoustic song with a driving drum beat throughout.

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The biggest cheers of the night are saved for two aforementioned covers, ‘Teardrop’ and ‘Heartbeats’ the latter being a song that would’ve first opened people’s ears to José’s unique talents. The crowd is still silent throughout and the song is all the better for it. I’m sure numerous people fight back the urge to sing along to both songs, but it’s infinitely better just hearing him doing his thing.

After this, José and his band leave the stage, only for José to inevitably return minutes later, alone once more. He plays ‘Line Of Fire’ a song from his other project Junip, which i feel actually sounds better with the rest of Junip rather than just solo. Finishing with the single off his second album In Our Nature, ‘Down the Line’ featuring more of those percussive claps throughout as well as a repetitive strumming pattern with a low bassline cutting through the rest of the sounds. The song is entrancing in its repetitive nature and José’s whispered, hauntingly beautiful voice as he repeatedly sings “don’t let the darkness eat you up”

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It’s a great way to go out, as the audience goes back into the dark, miserable Birmingham night. Having given their attention to José González for the last hour and a half, it was a brief escape from their lives. What better way to spend a December night, entranced by a bit of Swedish brilliance.


Review: Francis Sebestjanowicz

Photographs: John Dent

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