José Gonzaléz at the Fox Theater, by Jess Luoma
José González with yMusic (photo: Jess Luoma)

As concert goers took their seats (yes, seats) at the Fox Theatre last Sunday, there was a growing sense of anticipation for the rare collaborative performance featuring yMusic and José González.  We found our way to the orchestra section, and settled in for the semi-formal affair.  Come join as we walk through the evening together, from the first note from yMusic to José González’s encore performance.

Seven seats spread across the stage, and when the stage lights came up, the six instrumentalists of yMusic came forward and began to play.  The sextet brought chamber music to a new frontier, making an immediate first impression by performing a song from their forthcoming albumin which they perform a series of Son Lux compositions.  True to Son Lux, they managed to stretch a canvas of frenetic energy over the frame of a steadily pulsing swell of sound. What followed was a conversation between instruments, through a diversity of themes, and across genre lines.

Their second song, “Bladed Stance” (composed by Marcos Balter), was ethereal and evocative of nature.  They then left the moonlit forest for the hot summer streets of New York, as they performed a piece composed by Andrew Norman, inspired by the sounds of his air conditioner during a heatwave in the Big Apple.  The players were flooded in red light, breaking a sweat for the first time of the night as they engaged with the busy train of thought, tapping into Norman’s summer soul.

They closed out their set with their rendition of “Year of the Dragon,” a song by Sufjan Stevens, originally an electronic composition.  Between intricate finger work on the violin, subtle sounds from the muted trumpet, and confident, impassioned melodies from the flautist, yMusic’s set crescendoed decisively and abruptly into an elevated resolution. This is the future of classical music, and the music talks.

The seats once again empty, anticipation returned, along with a sense of curiosity about what lay ahead.

José González took to the stage, and sat stage left, alone – a stark contrast to the sextet that had just swept us up.  In his signature style, rhythmic as he goes, González introduced himself with his song “Stay in the Shade.”  With a single spotlight illuminating him, he managed to fill the theater with a sound and a presence both cinematic and down to earth.

As he moved on to his hit song, “Cycling Trivialities,” I began to suspect that yMusic was hiding behind the curtain, adding accents and embellishments.  A maestro, with more substance than style, he seemed to conjure strings and trumpets from his classical guitar.  With the third song, “Every Age,” the Edison bulbs above him were illuminated for some sunrise-esque mood lighting, shedding light on the whimsical mountainscape backdrop, and accompanying a thematic shift in the timbre of his tunes.

The lights continued to shift, and later dance, as he wove his soul into the songs.  The result was transcendent, as he invited the audience into an experience that was greater than the sum of his talents.  His hand danced up and down the fret-board, as he played rhythm, accompaniment and lead parts simultaneously, smoothly singing wistful melodies.  The climax of his solo performance was “What Will,” as the wonder that marked his whole set came to a head with a driving rhythm.

He then invited yMusic back to the stage, and all seven seats were filled for the first time. González and his guitar so filled the space on their own, that I worried and wondered at how they might add to songs that seemed so elegant and complete.  That worry was soon displaced, as the harmonies and parts that had seemed to echo from his guitar before now found their reality through the arrangements carefully crafted by Rob Moose, of yMusic, and the masterful performance by the other players.

González introduced Moose while changing the tuning of his guitar between songs, and received a good laugh when he said, “I let him pick freely from all of the albums, and he picked all the songs with different tunings.”

Later, offstage, Moose said “I took my time, in a good way, with these arrangements,” adding that “I had heard his music before, but it wasn’t until I took a retreat and listened to all of his albums that I was able to choose the songs I really wanted to arrange.”

The craft and care of this collaboration were evident, and it was a treat to be a part of it, if only from the audience.  The added instruments, from baritone saxophone to violin, opened up his songs in a new way.  The finale to the set was “Open Book,” a love song reminiscent of John Lennon, that left the audience wanting more.  An extended standing ovation beckoned González back to the stage, where he enchanted once more with his skillful, rhythmic guitar playing in his song “Hints,” singing “while the crowd is waiting for the final kiss.”  Here’s your hint, Mr. González: you are on the right track.  He then invited yMusic back on stage for the encore’s encore: “Killing for Love,” a crowd favorite.  He and his fellow musicians took the enraptured audience along as they drove for broke, up and down, in and out, before bringing it home to an abrupt stop.

Here’s hoping that José and yMusic find their way back to the bay area soon, and that this is not the end of their collaboration.  If you happen to be reading from the midwest or the east coast, don’t miss this tour before it’s over – and make sure to snag the limited release 7” vinyl that features two songs with José & yMusic.  Your only regret will be missing this one of a kind experience.

Article guest written by John Luoma.