José González


It could be that I’m biased in favour of anything Nordic, but it seems to me that Northern Europe always walks proudly on an independent path, away from mainstream styles, genres and attitudes. Tonight at the Academy 2 (justifiably sold out) I am blessed with the experience of Swedish-Argentinian singer and songwriter José González and his band, supported by Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Ólöf Arnalds. Not only is the quality of the music excellent, it’s also the overall elegance irradiated by both performances that is incredibly refreshing.

Ólöf Arnalds, who has already four LPs in her portfolio, is supporting González for the entire tour and is accompanied on stage by Skúli Sverrisson, who plays a semi-acoustic guitar. Arnalds is a fantastic blend of grace and intrinsic force conveyed through an ethereal yet powerful voice. Her formal music training is apparent in the proficient guitar playing and use of her voice. Her sound palette ranges from Celtic folk to Caetano Veloso’s ‘Maria Bethânia’, a song included in Arnalds’  collection of covers Ólöf Sings. Arnalds sings in English, Icelandic and Portuguese and I let her take me into the forest atmospheres she creates with her arpeggios and singing. The captivation is also caused by her extremely stylish looks, a contagious smile, her authenticity and a very deep look that pierces ours when she looks across the audience. The romantic ‘Turtledove’ (from her latest album Palme) is explicitly dedicated to her musical partner on stage. Despite her set lasting only 30 minutes and six songs, Arnalds succeeds in covering us with a breeze of bliss that makes me want to discover her more and hopefully see her live again soon.

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Ólöf Arnalds Photo by Francesca Nottola

While I wait for José González & friends, I use the 20-minute wait to observe the equipment on stage. The first thing that catches my eye is the large collection of percussion instruments. Beside a classic drum kit equipped with a maraca and some shells, the stage also hosts some congas and a mini vibraphone. On the left side of the stage, an effects deck full of pedals, some wooden claves and an adorable frog-shaped güiro. At the centre of the stage, González’s and the other guitarist’s amplified classical guitars.

At 21.20 the González team gets on stage and starts with ‘Afterglow’, ‘Stories We Build, Stories We Tell’ and ‘Let it Carry You’, all from Vestiges and Claws, released a month ago. González’s soft voice is enriched by the other four musicians’ background singing and clapping, while the other guitarist skilfully provides embellishing riffs and bass. I particularly appreciate the percussionist and the drummer’s delicate touch, his use of brushes and the fact that both floor and snare drums are often covered with cloths to create an even softer tone.

It is with ‘Killing for Love’ and ‘In Our Nature’, both from his second album, that González eventually makes the audience – up to then composed and silent – melt, and leads them to a warm applause. The Swedish musician is gentle, and happy to be back in Manchester, he says. Next up is the extraordinary ‘What Will’, from Vestiges and Claws, a song that truly emphasises his fantastic guitar playing technique and the beauty of his philosophical lyrics. González often uses non-standard tunings during the gig and this song is particularly interesting for what I perceive to be an influence of central African rhythms and tones.

The audience immediately cheers as González, now alone on stage, strikes the notes and the moving lyrics of ‘Crosses’ and ‘Hints’, both from Veneer. The grace of González’s hands and nails on his guitar is hypnotising and I could watch it for hours. Like Jeff Buckley, the coy musician has made of the cover an art and of course he could not deprive us of ‘Heartbeats’, the creative version of The Knife’s electronic track that made him famous worldwide, more than The Knife themselves. José González embodies one of those rare instances in which popular and critical acclaim converge and in which the lending of music to soundtracks and advertisements does not smell of rotten and does not compromise the quality of the music nor the integrity of the artist.

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José González Photo by Francesca Nottola

It’s still cover time, and it’s Kylie Minogue’s dance hit ‘Hand On Your Heart’ to go under surgery and become a captivating folk ballad. This man is a genius. I recommend that you look for both versions of the song online and enjoy the completely different atmospheres of the two videos. It’s definitely worth seven minutes of your precious time.

After ‘With the Ink of A Ghost’, that turns the drummer into a clarinet player and makes the audience go wild, González lends the microphone to effects man James Mathé, aka Barbarossa, who proposes one of his own songs, ‘Home’, from his latest album Imager, from Memphis Industries (of Dutch Uncles). After the haunting ‘Far Away’ (interrupted by the fire alarm going off at 22.15), another cover follows: ‘This Is How We Walk on the Moon’, a tribute to Arthur Russell, which highlights the delicate touch of the drummer, now using some padded mallets, and the other guitarist’s bass skills. González then takes up the very risky challenge of covering Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’. It is a nice version, but I’m afraid I’m not ready for anyone replacing Liz Fraser’s divine (m)utterances.

The last song before the encore is ‘Down The Line’. The band leaves a stomping audience at 22.30, to come back a few minutes later with Ólöf Arnalds for a lovely version of Velvet Underground’s ‘I’ll be Your Mirror’ with González on tambourine, followed by ‘Every Age’ and the perfect ‘Leaf Off/The Cave’.

It’s hard to find any flaws in José González and his band. It’s been a long, generous performance, and at the end of the gig the musicians were warmly thanking us for being there. As humble as only true artists can be.

After the gig, I am lucky enough to meet the band at Big Hands and share my admiration. These people are not only amazing musicians; they are also genuine, friendly human beings. González greets me with his typical quiet, sweet smile and tells me that his grandmother is Sicilian, from that beautiful city called Catania.

Biochemistry may have missed a great researcher, but – to be honest – I’m glad that Mr González chose a music career over his PhD. I am already looking forward to the next gig and album.

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Francesca Nottola

I write, translate, edit texts and take pictures. I solve problems for pensioners and create problems to everyone else. Sometimes a history researcher and language tutor, I would happily live in a national archive or in the head of professional musicians. Unfortunately, I say what I think