Shapeshifting

Jose Gonzalez and Zero 7 at Avalon, September 12, 2006
By SHARON STEEL  |  September 18, 2006

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The last time I saw Jose Gonzalez, at the Museum of Fine Arts, he stayed seated in a folding chair, and his feet didn’t move except to tap out the rhythms of his songs. On stage with Zero 7 at Avalon, something astonishing has taken possession of the man I thought I understood intimately, through his soft, shy stage manner and sparse, finger-picked ballads. During his opening set, he was reserved, his face completely blank, polite and sotto-voiced, telling us he hoped we were having a nice evening. Fast forward to about an hour later, and Zero 7 is sampling beats like mad, guest vocalist Sia Furler is twirling around — a toddler at her first prima ballerina class, barely pausing mid-belt to blow into a kazoo — and Jose is jumping front and center, holding out his arms as though he’s about to introduce someone important, and busting out the best-of-the-worst dance moves ever made public. If you think you look awkward trying to bump ‘n’ grind to Joy Division at the Pill before you’ve slammed back enough shots, it’s a fair bet that Jose can put you to shame in five seconds flat.

Smashed between the crowd on Avalon’s left steps (the only place at that venue where a girl can actually get a good look at her idol without straining every neck muscle to see him strum a chord), I’m riding an emotional high that’s usually reserved for first kisses, asking myself where, in God’s name, has Jose Gonzalez has been all my life. It’s a delicious surprise to find that Jose can get beyond the bedroom sound of Veneer, and by “get beyond,” I mean this guy can swing with a reckless, nerdy abandon that does nothing to rob him of his Nick Drake comparisons. Listening to Veneer, or watching him play alone, “Save Your Day” and “Deadweight on a Velveteen” are the kind of songs that make me want to sit on a suburban wraparound porch with a tartan blanket and contemplate the bitter ends to relationships until I’m forced to go inside and sob into an old boyfriend’s shirt. When he’s sharing the bill with Zero 7, the same singer/songwriter who refused to let anyone else so much as lend a backing drum track to his debut album is waving goodbye like Zero 7 are the next Broadway bound musical cast and he’s in charge of teaching them razzle-dazzle jazz-hands.

On The Garden, Zero 7 expertly pushed their ambient acid-jazz further into the pop realm, and live, The Garden is eons better than the careful production and restrained vocals permanent members Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker regulated to the record. Zero 7 are a down-tempo trip-hop outfit with a rotating cast that sells itself primarily on the reputations of their guest vocalists, and Sia’s pipes are their biggest pay-off — usually when I think about women in rock music who sport bleach-blonde pageboy haircuts and baby doll dresses, an unattractive image of Courtney Love pops into my head. Except Sia is quite possibly the cutest girl I’ve ever seen front a band. There’s nothing kitschy about her voice, though, which is soulful and full-bodied, Fiona Apple with twice the smoldering embers, edged out by a childlike sense of exuberance and joy I thought had to be commercially manufactured on Kidz Bop compilations. “This Fine Social Scene,” “You’re My Flame,” and her own “Breathe,” were the spine-tinglers, made even more charming by Sia’s brief introductions. “This is a love song, so if you’re here with someone you love, just put your hand on that little crease right above their bottom. If they don’t fancy you, you can just pretend it didn’t happen. Gosh, it’s really scary loving someone!” Yes, Sia, it is; Jose could’ve told you that. Which he did, in fact, on the tracks he collaborated on with Zero 7:  “Left Behind,” “Today,” and the mopey-lovely “Future.”

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