José González Throws Curve Balls @ Bimbo’s 365 Club

05/04/2015

Last Monday and Tuesday, one of San Francisco’s oldest and most storied nightclubs, Bimbo’s 365 Club in North Beach, hosted a rare pair of sold-out shows for Swedish singer-songwriter and guitarist José González. This is his first solo tour since 2008, to support his new record Vestiges and Claws. I’ve been wanting to seen him live for more than 10 years now, so I think I reached the maximum allowable score on the excitement scale for seeing a soft-spoken classical guitarist.  Looking around at the pleasant and agreeable crowd of young professionals, I got the feeling I wasn’t really supposed to act excited, just attentively curious. So I put on my best “ok, I guess I’m interested” face and made my way to the left of the stage.

González and his supporting quartet walked onstage to appreciative yet restrained fanfare, and promptly began playing. Setting the tone with the head-nodding groove of new song “Stories We Build, Stories We Tell,” the band used muted acoustic guitar thumps, gentle strumming, and restrained handclaps to build a hushed hip-hop beat that somehow paired well with González’s signature reserved vocal melodies. Despite being quiet enough to hear ice clinking at the bar, the sound was full, rich, and moving. Even so, it felt as though the band and audience were simply politely acknowledging one another after the first few songs.

After working through a few tunes, including Junip track “Walking Lightly,” the band suddenly exited the stage, leaving José standing solitary in the spotlight with his guitar. After a few moments of silent anticipation, the fingerpicked melody of 2003’s breakout hit “Crosses” began streaming through the speakers, and the audience finally loosened up, giving a solid cheer and singing along… now we’re talking!

He played a few of his better-known tracks during this intimate 4-song solo session, including his cover of The Knife’s “Heartbeats,” which elicited one of the biggest responses of the evening. When the band returned, they jumped right into “What Will,” the sweeping cinematic centerpiece of Vestiges and Claws. The song starts and ends with the same breezy arpeggio, with a middle section that feels like riding a horse, gradually picking up speed, then suddenly breaking into a spritely Celtic guitar solo (!?) while delivering a call to action: “Vestiges and claws / Fight for a common cause / Free your mind / To leave dogma behind.” I noticed this track had a slightly hip-hop backbone as well… is José going to be on the next Kanye record or what? I mean, if Justin Vernon can do it… why not?

José González – “What Will” (official video)

While González was the focus up until this point, we were in for a few special collaborative treats during the second half of the set, including a touching, heartstring-tugging cover of Barbarossa’s “Home” led by James Mathé– who just so happens to be Barbarossa, and a member of González’s touring band. This one had every female in the audience swaying back and forth as if watching a live rendition of the pottery scene from the movie Ghost. Whoa dudes, that was majestic.

Barbarossa – “Home”

Amongst the final songs of the set, they forayed into subdued deep house territory, with a 4/4 kick drum, trembling sub bass, and rattlesnake maraca providing a head-bobbing cover of Arthur Russell’s “This Is How We Walk On The Moon.” Unexpected, uptempo and awesome.

José González – “This Is How We Walk On The Moon” (Arthur Russell cover)

Following a rendition of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” and another new original, the band bowed out to a rowdy round of applause, with González flashing an earnest smile and holding up a rose he had been gifted by an audience member. Despite the slow start, it seemed the Monday night audience had been charmed by the humble yet dynamic set. After a few minutes of persistent ovation, the band returned with Icelandic singer and multi-instrumentalist Olöf Arnalds, who opened the show, to play a rendition of The Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” Together, her and González paradoxically convinced the audience to wave their hands overhead like preschoolers miming the word “rainbow” while singing the refrain, “Please put down your hands / ‘Cause I see you / I’ll be your mirror.”

Bizarre, innocent, and beautiful… just like life outside the club’s walls. Except out here, we’re not so innocent.

Support provided by Olöf Arnalds.

You can purchase Vestiges and Claws and check future tour dates over at José González’s official website.

Photos by Dace Hines and Joe Keefe