José González moves audiences at Walt Disney Concert Hall

Songwriter, guitarist and the lead singer of the band Junip José González wowed L.A. audiences to start off spring break with a moving performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Famous for his song “Crosses” featured on The O.C. and remixed by Tiesto, his haunting soundtrack for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and his several collaborations with Sia Fuller back when she was still with Zero 7, González spiced up his usual guitar-only routine with The Y Music Ensemble — composed of a flute, trumpet, cello, sax and two violins.

In this way, the concert was something of an anomaly for González. According to his website, he generally holds himself to “having everything on his albums reproducible solo in a live context.” However, his website also states that he “focused more on the role of being a producer” or worrying less about live reproducibility, in his most recent album, Vestiges & Claws. With this undoubtedly in mind, he performed with and without the accompaniment of Y Music for new and old tracks as well as a couple of covers.

Y Music opened the concert with three of their own tracks, one of which was supposedly inspired by the sound of an air conditioner, which was, pun intended, so cool. When joined rather unceremoniously by González, the group played an arrangement of “Crosses” that added a mournful depth much less pronounced in the guitar-only version. That being said, González’s guitar work was decedent and deeply moving, enhanced by the accompaniment rather than overpowered by it. After five exquisite tracks with Y Music including “The Nest” and “Lovestain,” González went back to basics, performing “Cycling Trivialities,” Junip’s “Line of Fire” and several other songs solo.

The combination and arrangement (courtesy of Y Music’s Rob Moose) was poignant in its subtlety and gorgeous to hear. Unfortunately, the venue ended up feeling somewhat at odds with the music at times. While the space was acoustically excellent for González’s mahogany rich guitar and classical accompaniment, it was a strange choice for what technically constitutes a rock concert. Though González’s works are for the most part what one might call sleepy-time music, more energetic tracks like “Killing4Love” (his encore) felt stifled by the formality of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The crowd too seemed torn whether to dress as if they were off to a rock show or the LA Phil, whether to yell in support or clap politely.

Beyond the acoustic merits of the concert hall, a lesser known but equally influential aspect of González’s work — his extensive academic background — may further explain this choice of an otherwise odd venue. González was on track for a Ph.D. in biochemistry before his music career took off. His second album, In Our Nature is inspired by two prominent bioethics books — Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion and Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics according to an interview he did with Ground Control Mag in 2007. He even worked with Goteborg String Theory to arrange his track, “Cycling Trivialities” for full orchestral performance. With this in mind, it makes sense that many of his other tour stops are at universities — CalArts, UC Santa Barbara. Walt Disney Concert Hall frames his performance as the academic institutions do — as an object of study rather than a regular old rock concert.

While the venue may have stymied more enthusiastic responses, it did not stop a rogue catcall when González removed his coat, much to the audience’s amusement and González’s embarrassment. Overall, he spoke very little and seemed oddly nervous to be on stage, given his extensive musical background and expertise. He was lit very mysteriously throughout, often obscuring his presence entirely. He even fumbled a couple times with his tuning, though it was clearly not due to a lack of skill. It was astonishing how much sound he could produce with a single instrument, more layered than many bands can generate with multiple guitars. However, his discomfort on stage (or perhaps just at this venue) may explain why he is not more well known in the American charts given his musical merit.

Overall, the experience was overwhelmingly positive. His sound both alone and with orchestral accompaniment was framed amazingly by the venue, which was somehow made to feel smaller and more intimate by the painterly lighting. González is clearly an excellent musician, able to produce masterful work solo or collaboratively, regardless of whether that collaboration come from classical or popular influences. Though interacting with the audience is not his forte, the rich, multifaceted and lyrically intelligent sounds he produces do plenty by themselves.