José González


Reader, I am hungover. I wish this were not the case, I only had two pints last night, but after waking up much too early, my head is humming, and I don’t know if drinking any more is a good idea oh but Tracy has bought me another pint so I guess I’ll just have to deal with it, I don’t think this is going to be a particularly noisy gig anyway [reader, how wrong I will turn out to be] because we’re here to see floaty ethereal indie Swedish singer-songwriter José González with support from Jesca Hoop.

I asked Tracy if she wanted to come last week, and she said, tongue I assume in cheek, “Oh yeah I love his Sony advert! He did that beating hearts one right?” She’s not that into folk music, but I told her it was definitely going to be worth coming because he’s being accompanied by The String Theory, a brilliant experimental orchestra also from Sweden – their website says they are an ‘artist collective and production company based in Berlin and Gothenburg that since 2007 explores the outskirts of contemporary classical music and wild pop by means of collaborative workshops, studio recordings and live performances.’ Right up my street. Tracy is less convinced but I’ve dragged her here anyway.

Jesca Hoop

Jesca Hoop begins, performing solo, beautifully spotlit in the centre of the stage, with ‘Songs of Old’ from her latest album. She’s originally from California (and famously babysat Tom Waits’ kids) but sounds like she could be from anywhere in the Western folk world (Tracy asks if she’s Scottish?), like she’s emerged from some kind of otherworldly folk void. She tells the crowd she’s lived in Manchester for the last decade, so this is actually a hometown gig, and they roar with approval. Now she plays ‘Murder of Birds’, which was originally a duet with local legend Guy Garvey. “Why’s he not on stage then?” asks Tracy. “He’s moved to London to be with his wife and kids”. She rolls her eyes. “Put that in your review.” I will, I tell her, and go to write it down in my Embarrassing Notebook I Take To Gigs I’m Writing About but realise it’s disappeared from my pocket. I spent most of the next song she plays scrambling around in my pockets for it and realise I’ve dropped it on the floor. When I pick it up my pen has run out. God this is embarrassing, can there be any bigger dickhead at a gig than the guy taking notes rather than watching [YES READER, THERE CAN AS IT TURNS OUT, BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR] but I don’t have much time to think about it because Jesca Hoop’s mouth is emitting a note at a superhumanly high pitch and volume, cutting through the whole room with operatic power. Everybody in the room is a little stunned. She gazes out over us sharply.

“Okay everyone.” She has our attention. “We like democracy, right?” Everyone in the crowd goes wild for democracy. “We’re going to have a vote.” Oh god a vote. I hope it’s an easy one, I’m here to see music, I can’t deal with a referendum right now, sorry Jesca.

“Who would like to hear a gig?”

The crowd goes wild for hearing a gig.

“And who doesn’t?”

The crowd does not go wild. There’s a murmur of noise from people who clearly aren’t listening.

Hoop grins. “It doesn’t always work. But now I have your attention.” After this sneaky trick to quiet down the louder members of the audience, I assume that’ll be the last distracting noise we hear [wrong again], and I think we all do, but after the next song, Hoop pauses and stares over at the bar.

Jesca Hoop

“What is that?”

We all stare over with her and listen carefully. There’s a sort of repetitive mechanical beat coming from by the bar, to the far left of the stage.

“I feel like I’ve brought some kind of curse on the whole room. Is that some kind of dishwasher?”

I think maybe it’s coming from Albert Schloss, the bar underneath us that often does live music. It does sound like someone’s thrown a snare drum into a washing machine. She begins playing ‘City Bird’.

“This is going to be interesting. Forget I brought it up.”

Luckily she drowns out the noise and as far as I can tell it doesn’t throw the song off. She announces the next will be her last song. The audience responds with a theatrical “AWWWWWWWWWWWWWW”.

“You’re very well trained,” she tells us.

Before she starts the song, she begins muttering ‘Every’ to herself ‘Acid’ and starts to tune her guitar ‘Dealer’ speaking deliberately ‘Gets’ and concentrating hard “Busted’ on every note ‘Eventually’. A little joke for the guitar players out there. She finishes with ‘Hunting My Dress’, again sounding like she could have come out of any English-speaking folk scene in the world, this one sounds particularly like an old English ballad though:

“And the tall trees all fall down
And they scatter seeds on the ground
And one is lost and one is found
Water is moving underground”

She grins, bows and leaves the stage to great applause. Tracy says it’s not her normal thing but she was into it. I think this is one of the great things about watching live music you might not choose to see yourself – for a while you’re committing yourself to just listening to somebody that you might not otherwise. [So long as some entitled git doesn’t ruin it for you.]

The lights go down and The String Theory musicians and their conductor file in. The conductor, PC Nackt stands ready, facing the musicians his legs stretched wide in what has come to be known as the Tory Power Stance, presumably trying to channel strength and stability. The orchestra all take out what appears to be pink tissue paper and rustle it around in their hands mysteriously. The sounds it makes sound just like radio static, white noise (pink noise?), and behind all the orchestral musicians I can barely see someone prodding at a laptop and electronic music hardware, and out of the noise comes a strange mix of warbly strings, drones and ambient sounds. As intro tracks go it’s an effective one. José González takes to the stage. The crowd goes wild again. Tracy points out what great shirts him and the conductor are wearing. González sits calmly tuning his guitar. “And he’s buff?!” Tracy very accurately points out. “This is great shit.” I agree, this is indeed great shit.

The conductor is extremely dynamic, bent over like some kind of wizard over a cauldron, conducting baton right up in the air, bringing it slamming down on every beat. The orchestra aren’t playing yet but begin chanting “ah” on the beat. I feel like I’m watching some kind of cult ritual. I’ve not seen a whole orchestra look so vibrant and dynamic in a long time. I think about a tweet I saw once about classical music academia – ‘The most conservative corners of music studies are much cooler if you think of them as a weird ancestor-worship cult.’ – and wonder, would it not be better for orchestras to lean into their cult vibes? To fully embrace the weird ritualistic elements of classical (or classical-ish) music performance in the same way e.g. The Polyphonic Spree did? Maybe sacrifice a bassoon on stage every once in a while?

José González

González begins singing, and the orchestral accompaniment is perfect for his virtuoso guitar playing and mysterious earthy voice. I don’t know if he’s the cult leader or just some kind of prophet. Thinking about it the conductor would probably be the cult leader, he’s got that kind of angry magnetism. One of the percussionists at the back is wobbling a huge sheet of metal and whacking a large tube theatrically. A couple of songs later all the orchestral players take out an individual chime bar like you see in a school percussion box and begin to hit them seemingly at random, creating a wash of bright metallic sound. As the song progresses they begin to come together into huge waves of chime, which then becomes more clapping, which morphs into an orchestral swell.

González introduces the next song, ‘The Forest’ – “This is about the spirit of the times, how they change beneath our feet, above our heads, without us noticing.” He begins it alone, fingerpicking, and is joined by a clarinet and a flute. Wait no he’s stopping. He looks down at stage left, just in front of the stage. He gives someone there a look that says “please be quiet”, finger to lips, recollects himself, and then begins again.

A little later we move closer to the stage to see if we can get a better and less claustrophobic view than our previous spot in the middle of the room. I slowly become aware that the man in front of me is a little louder than most other audience members and doesn’t actually seem to be watching the show. He’s a tall, broad, bald man in a cream blazer and a large leopard print scarf, which he is wearing with the air of somebody who is wearing a leopard print scarf that belongs to e.g. their wife or girlfriend. Tracy is wide-eyed. “Oh god I’m so sorry,” she says to me as it slowly becomes clear we are next to a man who is so drunk he has morphed into a large toddler, the VERY MAN JOSE WAS SHUSHING.

As the next song begins, he starts stomping his feet aggressively on the metal floor, not along to the music, just like he wants attention or needs changing or is marking his territory, and I wish he’d just mark his territory in the traditional sense by pissing everywhere, it’d be quieter at least. It’s very hard to focus on the incredible musicians on stage with all this going on. He’s not even applauding, he’s just playing with his scarf and stomping around. González begins playing his big one – ‘Heartbeats’. The crowd, once again, goes wild. No more so than the man in the scarf. Someone behind me is singing, “To call from hands of above/To lean on, wouldn’t be good enough/To lean on”, and I wouldn’t point this very slight lyrical mistake out if I didn’t think it was a strangely appropriate one because I spent most of that line trying NOT to be leant on by the man in the scarf who is stumbling around in absolute drunken self-absorption and threatening to crush the audience members around him if he takes one false step. After the next song he belts ‘JOSEEEEEEEE’ at the stage and in return gets a layered stare from the man himself, equal parts confusion, amusement, disbelief, sort of possibly annoyance but maybe I’m just projecting. What I mean is it looks like this. “Thanks, I’m very happy to be here,” González says.

José González

During the next song the man in the scarf finds a friend. This is an absolutely terrible development, because the friend similarly has no understanding that the people around him are there to listen to music and not him. They’re having a conversation now. I really wish I had the mental strength to just block them out and focus on the music but they’re making it very difficult. I consider asking them to be quiet but before I work up the nerve Tracy, who is braver than me, interjects and points out to them that people are here to watch the gig. They look confused–the look on their face says, doesn’t everyone do this at gigs? They’re quiet for a bit and then start up another conversation. A couple to the right of us look similarly irate. They get louder again. I work up the courage to tap on the shoulder of the other man, another large, bald man, but this one with a bristly moustache and glasses, and ask, “Could you maybe have this conversation later?” He looks at me like I’ve just asked him to give me his wallet or the deed to his house and says, “but it won’t be as relevant then”.

My mind implodes at the implications of this statement. The idea that his conversation won’t be as relevant later. The music we’re seeing – roughly 40 incredibly skilled, world-class musicians, here for one night only, won’t be relevant later, I want to shout back. This won’t be relevant later because I will literally never be here again and I will probably never see these musicians again and you’ve paid £30 to see this band but you think the conversation you’re having now is more interesting and relevant than the once-in-a-lifetime event taking place in front of you. As it is I don’t get the chance because a much more measured but equally irate man next to me interrupts to suggest, “you can chat over there,” while I’m still reeling from the sheer arrogance and stupidity of this man’s statement.

After the song finishes, José González himself puts his finger to his lips and shushes them. It makes no difference. There is no hope now. If you are shushed by José González and don’t quieten down, God himself cannot quiet you. Another woman to the right of me attempts to quiet them, but has no luck. The man in the leopard print scarf starts apologising. He did this last time he was shushed. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” he keeps shouting. I put my hand on his arm and say “If you’re sorry, then be quiet.” He looks at me with something that looks weirdly like respect and sort of laughs and shakes my hand and says “yeah alright… alright… alright” over and over, not letting my grip go. The man in the moustache is telling the man to my right that he’s paid his money just like everyone else, and that the other man should move somewhere else if it bothers him. I am baffled by this. The orchestra begin to play a cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’. The pair have an arm around each other, other arm pointed to the sky, blasting out the lyrics they remember, as if they’re at an Oasis gig and ‘Wonderwall’ has just started playing, which honestly would be fine but I can’t hear the orchestra over them and at this point I give up and move elsewhere.

It’s the last song, ‘Stories We Build, Stories We Build’, and there’s more clapping from the orchestra. In a final weird theatrical twist, the conductor picks up a power drill from the floor which somehow I hadn’t noticed was lying there before and starts revving it. It works surprisingly well as an instrument. I wonder what the audition process was like for a power drill player. Do you need power drill grades? The orchestra stand up and start to sing as a choir. I wonder if the score for this concert has a set of notes for ‘power drill player’. I wonder if the score has a set of notes for ‘two men in the audience determined to ruin the gig for everyone around them’. Never mind tissue paper and chime bars, that’d be the really edgy orchestration choice. I’ll leave the last words to Tracy: “He had an Apple Watch on, of course he was going to be a dickhead.”

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