When the house lights dimmed, the crowd at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts in Reno were promised something special.
“Tonight, we will be dazzled and enchanted by the beauty of José González & The String Theory,” said Beth Macmillan, Artown executive director, as more than 20 musicians strolled out onto the stage.
González was surrounded by three open classical guitar cases. The string and brass players took their seats and the percussionists grabbed mallets.
The audience sat in the beautiful theater and felt the silence as the star tuned his guitars. The room was warmed up by the sinewy buildup of different instruments and soundscapes. Conductor P.C. Nacht faced away from crowd, his hair back-lit, standing silhouetted and static.
Most of the seated musicians started rustling what looked like plastic bags in their hands as lights started to turn on. It sounded like the resonance of a singing bowl.
Every musician was clearly invested. When they weren’t playing, they’d whistle or add percussion, sometimes by turning pebbles in a bag during atmospheric songs.
The percussion section was a sight, a Rube Goldberg contraption of pipes for hitting and thin pieces of metal for wobbling. A gigantic, 10-foot slab of metal provided the backbone of larger crescendos. The scale of the music was completely grounded by the small click of the familiar woodblock.
Usually when a band teams up with an orchestra, it ends up sounding like karaoke. In this case, the whimsical flutes and harp solos worked magically with singers to paint beautiful new layers atop González’s music.
Before the performance, the host also mentioned people had driven up from Oakland after seeing the performance at The Fox Theater the night before. Great music is a drug.
González is known for bare, exposed performances. He grabbed the world’s attention with two covers that arguably surpass the originals. Anyone who can cover Massive Attack this well deserves fame. He’s usually accompanied by only his guitar or a woodblock and light accenting in his band Junip. During this performance, he was enveloped in rich, eccentric music.
Nacht took off his shoes and sat on the stage during the good part of a song. He rose from being cross-legged and his hair sat upon his head like Bill Murray in the 10th frame. He flipped his hair as he started vibing to the music.
Twice during the performance, I heard a fan yell a request to González. Do you realize the irony of making a request to a full orchestra?
One song had a hip-hop-esque beat. As the song peaked, Nacht revved a power drill into a microphone. He jumped off the stage and down into the crowd. Once they started standing and clapping, he hopped back up and drilled again into the driving song.
Another one sounded a little like Radiohead. I guess if your percussion section makes a beat like “Idioteque,” you can’t fight the urge to Thom-dance. Nacht handled that just fine.
Throughout the performance, González played both of his famous covers; “Heartbeats” by The Knife and “Teardrop” by Massive Attack. It was completely fulfilling to hear his singer/songwriter rendition with the enthralling backbeat of the UK hit.
The nuanced layers of scoring and González’s reserved and rich voice are too emotional for the faint of heart — this was a moving and beautiful experience.
— Tony Contini