Live Review: José González with yMusic at Moore Theatre 3/6/16

Live Reviews
Casey Dunau
all photos by Matthew B. Thompson

A quick glance at the stage set up for Sunday evening’s show might’ve tipped one off as to the type of music they’d hear for the night. With no drums, no amps, and mostly classical instruments surrounding chairs and music stands neatly arranged in a semi circle across the stage, a rock show was clearly not forthcoming. Of course, most José González fans could’ve expected that much. The Swedish folk singer of Argentine descent has always shied away from booming arrangements even when covering the most anthemic of pop songs. On guitar, his use of deftly fingered classical styling in place of blistering electric solos has always been a trademark. But in the past that’s never stopped the veteran artist from employing a conga or two in order to add flavor and pop to his live set. None were on display this time. For a musician who’s long since waved goodbye to his hardcore punk roots, the stage hinted that his pop sensibilities might be fading into the rearview as well.Enter yMusic, a six piece classical ensemble that have acted as an underappreciated viaduct between pop and avant-garde for the better part of a decade. From Bon Iver to Dirty Projectors to Sufjan Stevens, if your favorite indie artist uses haunting orchestral arrangements to give their vocal yearnings that extra dramatic push, yMusic likely played a role. As leaders pushing forward in the expanse that is symphonic music, their position as José González' backing band and opening act made perfect sense.

True to their billing, the group glided gracefully through both classical and pop songs in their opening set, performing pieces by contemporary heavyweight composer Andrew Norman and indie-pop sensation Sufjan Stevens. At their most experimental, yMusic made five-plus minutes of fluctuating between roughly the same two chords sound as lolling and peaceful as a lazy river float on a summer day. At their most accessible, they’re as triumphant as an ascent up Everest. yMusic’s ability to arrange their pieces so that singer-songwriters and post-modern composers can share the same space is not only an impressive technical feat, but a generous and bold move in tearing down age old musical barriers.

While José González wasn’t the first and wont be the last songwriter to embrace strings and other symphonic instruments in a live set, yMusic’s performance proved particularly effective for his style. For one, the Gothenburg native has always embraced the complications of polyrhythm and harmony, a fact that somehow shone through even in the solo portion of his performance. When González breaks down chords into individual notes across all six of his guitar’s nylon strings, he often separates his pattern into two distinct parts, one for the lower strings and one for the higher. This style is not uncommon for classical guitar players, but few match González for embracing brevity without banishing depth as they do it. Given only his voice, his guitar, and an electronic kick pad, González was already conjuring the lush textures of a multi-instrumentalist ensemble even before yMusic took the stage.

So when the six-piece did join him for his final cluster of songs, they only served to augment an already powerful performance rather than take it in a new direction. Even in moving from one to seven people on the stage, the show remained cohesive. This is largely because González' best songs don’t drive forward so much as they lap into an easy swirl, with vocals falling over guitar over vocals. Rather than creating a bombastic push, the addition of french horns, cellos, and saxophones broadened his music’s pull, creating whirlpools with infinitely dense centers of force, gravity, and meaning. And perhaps this is the genius of José González' songs, the most famous of which are often covers. They don’t stand alone, parading for attention from a disinterested listener. Instead they draw fans in, referencing something familiar, transforming it, and keeping us entranced all the while.

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