Monday, March 24, 2008

Lights and shadows leave only music

photograph by Daniel Peter

Mia Doi Todd, a nymph-like singer-songwriter with an air of lighthearted yet sultry confidence, opened for Jose Gonzalez in Lakeshore Theater on St. Patrick's Day night. The performance felt almost classical, especially considering the fact that the audience was sitting down. Jose Gonzalez draws from South American music as well as a more indie/pop/folk style, and he clearly chose to highlight the world music aspect of his sound with his choice of opener.

Accompanied by Andres Renteria, a meditative hand-drummer, Mia Doi Todd sang her own honest lyrics as well as some traditional folkloric songs from various countries. She also played a harmonium, turning its wheel with her foot while simultaneously singing and strumming her guitar; the effect was a pleasant drone that added considerable depth to her sound. Mia Doi Todd’s MySpace page describes her sound as “lilac gardenia honeysuckle magnolia tuberose smell.” Further research reveals she is not only a musician but a “singer-songwriter-guitarist-poet-painter-dancer” and educated at Yale, no less.

Although the opening act put me in the relaxed mindset appropriate to Jose Gonzalez’s music, the darkened stage and red spotlights that came on for the main act emphasized a heavier dynamic. In fact, compared to the ultra-smooth, ultra-soothing music of Mia Doi Todd, Gonzalez’s fluttering acoustic strumming sounded positively edgy. The extended patterns and chant-like repetition of his music, however, combined with that edginess to create the haunting quality of his that draws so much admiration.

The use of lighting in his performance—by turns red, orange, green and yellow—made the performance into more than just a concert; it became a multi-dimensional experience. As streams of chartreuse lights rose and fell in stripes across the back wall of the stage and spotlights criss-crossed above my head in varied colors, I felt as if I were inside one of those quasi-psychedelic screen-savers, but in a good way. Those who might hope to see what Jose Gonzalez actually looks like—beyond the shadowed figure that usually appears in his music videos—will be disappointed, because he seems to cling to the shadows just as much in his live performances. The result is a complete focus on the music, without the distractions of personality.

Perhaps the most memorable moment for me was when Gonzalez performed “Heartbeats.” Triangles outlined in orange and yellow seemed to burst forth from the stage and dance above my head as Gonzalez sang the compelling and catchy refrain: “To call for hands of above / To lean on / Wouldn't be good enough / For me, no.” The word “lean” catches the melodic climax of the line perfectly here, allowing words and notes to fuse as one, and the play of lights only heightened that effect.

In songs like “Killing for Love,” which has a simpler and more repetitive chorus, Gonzalez’s band members echoed the chorus lines in perfect sync. At these times a rhythmic pulse seemed to take over the theater, suffusing the audience in the same way the lights did. The mood was not taken too gravely, though. Gonzalez’s good-natured response to audience shenanigans was gentle sarcasm: “This is not fun,” he said humorously. “This is serious music.”

“Down the Line” was still the most arresting of Gonzalez’s songs. The extended intro allowed the steely minor chords to sink in, drawing out the anticipation of chord resolution until the last possible moment, then swinging into the darkly infectious melody. The lyrics, “I see problems down the line / I know that they’re mine” seem uniquely direct and troubled among Gonzalez’s songs.

The performance reached a crescendo and was met with a partial standing ovation, followed by a generous encore and fully standing ovation. As the lights went up, I felt as if I were emerging from some alternate, tribal earth-rhythm environment, and the contrast left me slightly dazed, like when you emerge from an engrossing movie into a still-light afternoon. — Cory Robertson