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Sunday, March 11, 2007

the mysterious and fleeting appearance of the contradictory veneer at a josé gonzález gig.

It is very difficult to articulate my point today...

José González performed at the Wits Great Hall a couple of weeks ago, and I went along. He is touring in support of his album Veneer, originally released in 2003. You may have heard his music in Sony's advert for the Bravia LCD televisions, where thousands of bouncy balls make their slow-motion way down San Francisco's hilly roads. There is actually a website exclusively concerned with the advert here. I like his music; I like that he's a classically trained guitarist; I like the fact that he's actually Swedish.

It's amazing what thoughts and questions can arise from an ordinary event. Admittedly, performances by independent artists in Johannesburg (or South Africa) are not ordinary events. González was supported by local pop duo Harris Tweed (Cherilyn MacNeil and Darryl Torr). The lighting design was incredibly effective and the sound quality was excellent - the Great Hall was tranformed into a bona fide performance space. MacNeil gushed thanks and amazement before the concert began and while one might say it's actually not such a big deal at all (González has only released one album, to good but not overwhelming acclaim), it is a big deal against the live music desert that is Jo'burg. Can't say I think much of their music, it's good, if a bit samey and twee, and if you like that sort of thing. González gave an excellent performance, starting on his own and bringing out a couple of friends to ever-so-subtly play congas and sing backing vocals.

To draw a comparison between the two would be a mistake, because they are really from different schools. But, in reflection, there was something of an elucidation regarding the state and attitude of the South African audience, and even my own ear. For example, in the performance of one of Harris Tweed's songs, MacNeil hit a bum note on the piano...and it sliced through the music sharply, immediately drawing my attention. There was a sense of panic that arose in me, and a baited waiting for the next false note. Then, in González' performance, I noticed that his singing intonation was sometimes off...a bit flat. The point here is that MacNeil's error seemed glaring, while González' singing was acceptable.

The venue doors opened just after 7, but we waited for an hour before Harris Tweed took to the stage. A long wait, but the hall wasn't near capacity. However, when González began his set the hall was full up. Friends had complained that at R210 and R260 the ticket prices were exorbitant, and they didn't come to the show. It is a little steep, but I felt it was worth it and was delighted that the venue had sold out. Yet, when I saw the seating arrangements, I was mystified. People who had paid R260 were seated in the front half of the hall, some of them right at the edge. People who had paid the lower price (like I did) were seated in the rear half. It's important to note that in this venue, the best vantage point of the high stage, and the best acoustic position is actually in the center, in the back half. I was just left of the center. It was impossible to sit in the rear center as these seats were reserved for Just Music (distributors), and Look & Listen (major music retailer). I find that odd... González was actually in SA towards the end of last year, where in some clandestine fashion he performed small invite-only shows, for retailers and distributors. It was difficult to tell how long he played for, but it was at least an hour. His songs are pithy, lasting just as long as they need to. I found his performance sincere and charming...something which didn't seem quite present in the support act.

I can't understand the attitude which would have a small artist fly all the way out here twice, and where a high-priced ticket gets you a second best seat, and where the best seats are actually unavailable - reserved for the privileged few with an interest and their possibly interested acquaintances. Odd. Or is it? I've often wondered at the way the South African handles these smaller events, and the audience's attitude to such events. In 2002, Benjamin Darvill (of the Crash Test Dummies) was brought to South Africa by Authentic Ideas (small management company/agency). I found out about this when the single poster happened to catch my eye, and it advertised Darvill as 'the percussionist from the Crash Test Dummies'. He is not a percussionist, as a matter of fact he plays harmonica, guitar and mandolin for the band. When I suggested to the staff at Roxy Rhythm Bar that they correct it, they steadfastly insisted that he was in fact a percussionist. Nonetheless, I was delighted as the Dummies are one of my favourite groups, but I was horrified when I went to his show. I found an almost-empty Roxy's Rhythm Bar where the few attendees were mostly people heckling the man as he masterfully looped bits of beat-boxing and scat, along with his harmonica and shaker, and whipped out some of the strangest blues I've ever heard. It was exhilirating. I spoke to him afterwards and, feeling ashamed by the heckling, apologised for the audience. It was difficult to hear him over the heavy metal that the club began to play immediately after his set. He was leaving in a couple of days, and so I rapidly set about arranging a performance opportunity at the University's theatre complex, and even though he was very eager to perform, Authentic Ideas 'couldn't manage' the performance at such short notice and he didn't play. And I don't think he'll play here again.

There is something about sincerity, a very fragile but powerful thing, which seems to appear between and above the performances I've mentioned. There's a thin but robust veil that separates them. I don't claim to know what it is, but it has felt somewhat tangible of late. There's something of a contradiction in the superficial approach to performance - both in the audience and the performer. What is good, what captures the imagination, what is striking and challenging, these things all seem to be blurred into the same plane as those which are imitative, florid and familiar. There is something in the back of the mind that says that South African artists are, by default, second rate; that international performers are all exemplary. And it worries me that I might be of the same mind-set. The audience also seems strongly conservative, and strangely liberal about that...both sure and surely naive.