I had a ticket to see Jose Gonzalez at the Bowery on Fourth of July weekend, and I've had a hard time forgiving myself for not using it. I'm not saying the drunken game of apples to apples in Central Park wasn't worth it, it's just that on July 3 I was only vaguely familiar with the twelve spare and enchanting tracks on Gonzalez's debut, Veneer, and by July 7 I had spun "Crosses" about four hundred times and designated the album the soundtrack to my summer morning walks to the subway. The feeling I had missed something continued to fester.
When I discovered that Gonzalez was a guest on Zero 7's The Garden, two things ran through my head: (1) fucking genius, and (2) I hope they tour. Turns out, Gonzalez does touch shades of brilliance on the album, and the group, much to my delight, did make it on tour with the Swedish songsmith in tow.
During his opening set at Webster Hall on September 15, the final night of the British electronic outfit's jaunt through the States, Gonzalez strummed through his haunting, understated tracks and coaxed his guitar through rhythmic variations, the instrument's methodical strums serving as percussion, the high-end riffs acting as backup singer to his soothing tenor. I was surprised to hear the first tenderizing notes of "Crosses" emerge without the support of the headliners, who reworked the song on The Garden, but the tune reappeared in Zero 7's set, where it truly belonged (with a regretfully shortened version of the band's Fleetwood Mac-ian ending. Think "The Chain"). All the favorites from the record were put up for live interpretation, but the set's highlight was the closer, a wizardly cover of Massive Attack's "Teardrop." The song (one of my all-time favorites) is steaming and languorous, and Gonzalez captured its orchestral luxuriousness, hypnotic, tick-tock groove and seductive delivery using only his acoustic and dreamy vocal chops. It's a mystery how the man squeezed so much sound from that guitar.
The one-man sound machine exited the stage to make room for a six-man music factory made up of Zero 7 masterminds Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker, mostly on synth and sound effects, and a four-piece band covering all the staples. With enough hands to induce even the most minimalist modulations and enough voices to recreate The Garden's layered harmonies, the band injected energy and depth into a genre that can often come off flat and hollow when performed live. The thread that pulled the project together was often the lead vocalist, a role filled by both Gonzalez and Sia Furler, the latter a favored Zero 7 collaborator and the artist responsible for "Breathe Me," which was the soundtrack what may be the most compelling and surreal five minutes in HBO history (during the Six Feet Under finale).
Sia opened set with the band on "You're My Flame," an infectious mélange of groovy vocals and light, quickened beats that provoked the Australian to bounce across the stage, arms and legs flailing. She's quite a ham, the opposite of Gonzalez, and her perpetual movement was defined not by foot taps or hip swings but by elated, aerobic kicking, foot stomping, cartwheeling and roboting. Not that her antics could overshadow her voice. She usually emits a controlled and seductive stream, but on the higher end, Sia occasionally channels Brittney Chipmunk (that's Alvin's girlfriend), and this works for her too. The nasal bravado unleashed itself full force aboard the carnival waltz of "Pageant of the Bizarre," a song Sia dedicated to the band with a characteristically wicked quip, "This one's for you, fuckers!" But Sia's standout performance was the minimally accompanied "Distractions," during which Sia finally stood still, clutching the mike amidst the glow of a half-dozen blue spotlights.
Gonzalez took the stage intermittently to combat Sia's wildness. If nothing else, Binns and Hardaker recognize the voices and demeanors that complement their music. Where Sia is an obvious frontwoman, Gonzalez's contributions feel more integrated and organic. "Today," with its spare, buoyant drums supporting Gonzalez's calm crooning, was fit for nighttime beach strolls, and "Future," The Garden's lead-off track with its strolling pace and melted harmonies, should stream live to the shuttle every time the atmosphere clears and an astronaut looks into the miraculous vastness of space for the first time. But if not for the identifying beacon of his voice, Gonzalez might have disappeared completely into Webster Hall's signature starlit backdrop. The yang to Sia's yin performance style, Gonzalez's quietly competing dynamic lent a welcome equilibrium to the lengthy set list.
The only time the show really faltered was when the band rode sans vocals. Without a passionate voice to lead, the music sounded tinny and repetitive. The band's instrumentals came off a bit like poorly embellished Nintendo soundtracks -- chipper, piping Moog followed by a rush of blips that signal the advance to Tetris's seventh level. Binns, sporting suspenders and an absurd red cap, reinforced that association by running in place while growling sound effects over an extended incarnation of "Seeing Things." It took all my strength not to shout, "It's me! Mario!"
But with their vocal gems on display, Zero 7 cannot lose. And for the most part, the group proved its ability to make music that is not only largely electronic, but also fundamentally human.
Zero 7 (streaming audio/video): http://www.zero7.co.uk/
Jose Gonzalez (streaming audio/video): http://www.jose-gonzalez.com/
Jose Gonzalez: "Stay in the Shade" MP3