José González w/ Madi Diaz @ Red Butte 08.29
The sold-out summer night at Red Butte Gardens was euphoric and peaceful. The energy in the air came from an amazing crowd of patient, kind people, excited but not boisterous. The grass was packed with attendees not afraid to be close to each other—in fact, they welcomed it. Strangers talked to strangers, drinking their wine and laughing with each other as the music unfolded before them. It was a relieving place to be on a Monday evening—an escape from the bustling world—and the music that night captured the evening’s energy.
Madi Diaz took the stage in an elegant, flowing white dress and boots. The slow wind caught the dress with care and gave Diaz a glow. She sang slow and beautiful ballads, welcoming the crowd with sweet giggles in between songs. She played a vintage guitar, which she marveled at along with all the guitarists in the crowd. Setting the tone for José González to take the stage, Diaz was grateful to be singing to such a wonderful crowd with such magnificent scenery. She was the kind of sweet performer the audience wanted.
González, a Spanish lullaby connoisseur, came out with the sunset to a somewhat empty stage: just a guitar and some trinkets for him to use. His soft voice welcomed the crowd before he made his first strum, and as soon as he did everyone took a deep breath, like the beginning of a yoga class. Immediately, his strumming and fingerpicking captured the audience with his immanent skill. González mostly performs solo with a looper pedal, a drum machine, a guitar and a single microphone. The simplicity of it caught me off guard.
In 2013, González lit up the world with the release of the film The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. González was featured greatly in the movie’s soundtrack and carried the trailer with his hit single, “Step Out.” The song contains a big drum intro and a giant choir that fills your soul with its huge, immaculate sound. He gave the world something of an indie-rock anthem of the 2010s. Other tracks he released with the film, such as “Stay Alive,” were widely celebrated as well. This is what I was expecting to see, and perhaps some of the crowd was too.
If that was what they were expecting, they weren’t disappointed when they didn’t get it, and neither was I. In fact, I was incredibly taken aback that one person on a stage could single-handedly capture a sold-out, summer amphitheater. The third song he played was an oldie, “Down the Line,” which I listened to in my middle school days. It gave me the kind of emotional relief an adolescent longs for. It was such a quintessential moment of my childhood recreated in front of my eyes by a single man with a guitar and the invisible instruments he tapped at with his feet.
A common saying is that a good musician isn’t as interested in the sound as he is the silence between the sound. González proved that more than once, but the biggest array of silence was when he asked the audience not to clap between his fourth and fifth songs. “The Void” and “Horizons” follow each other on his most recent album release, Local Valley, from 2021. When the bridge between the two songs arrived, it was obvious the first song was over, but his transition held the audience in a trance. They waited patiently for each strum, soaking it in while he took his time getting to the next note. It was at this moment I was most amazed at how in control of the “room” he was. I’ve never seen an audience obey the request not to clap like that, never seen such respect. González commanded it with a whispered voice and an incredibly dynamic guitar talent.
As the night of serenades progressed, the crowd sat fascinated. Later in the set, González introduced a song that he welcomed the crowd to sing with him if they knew of it. It was the first song he learned, he said, and then proceeded to play The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Faces lit up with excitement, and adoring guitarists raved and sang, not only because of their love for the musician and the song itself but because “Blackbird” was also one of the first songs they learned. It was a “group mind” kind of moment where a very established and talented guitarist said to a crowd of musicians that they were special for knowing how to play this song, despite everything others have told them.
When the encore came and the crowd prayed for songs they hadn’t heard yet, people stood and moved with the music. Again, I was shocked at how one person could make the crowd behave like that. They continued to marvel at the five-song encore and smiled courteously to each other as they walked out, hearts full of gratitude and bellies full of wine. This audience was built of people who find entire worlds in these lullabies. If you were there, you know they were right. –Mary Culbertson
Photos by Jovvany Villalobos // @thevillagewolf
Read more from Mary Culbertson:
7 Crucial Bands at Crucialfest 11
She & Him Melt Away Tour – A Tribute to Brian Wilson @ Red Butte 06.14