Walking the grounds of Zilker Park during the Austin City Limits Music Festival, what you hear more than anything else for three straight days is LOUD. From indie-rock to hip-hop to EDM to mainstream pop, most acts abide by the premise that the best way to get attention is to pump up the volume.
Which made Saturday’s stellar performance by Jose Gonzalez all the more remarkable. Playing a classical guitar and singing in sweet but hushed tones, the Swedish singer-songwriter enchanted a crowd of faithful fans and new converts who squeezed into tight quarters under the tent at the Tito’s Stage.
Most of Gonzalez’ material is original, though even when he tosses in the occasional curveball cover — Kylie Minogue’s “Hand on Your Heart,” Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” — he adapts it so completely into his own sound and style that it might as well be his own. Supported for most of the set by keyboards and acoustic guitar at stage right and a drummer and Latin percussionist at stage left, Gonzalez dressed the songs in subtle rhythms and textures, keeping the lead and harmony vocals at the center.
It was interesting, too, to watch the crowd as the set progressed. Early on, he lost a few bro-type partiers who quickly realized this wasn’t their jam. But a lot more in the crowd were singing along to songs they clearly knew by heart, and for the last few numbers, the tent was even more crowded than at the start, with passersby having been drawn in by the spell Gonzalez and his bandmates were weaving. And while other artists at ACL Fest occasionally coaxed their fans into clapping along, for Gonzalez such audience participation happened with no prompting at all.
Such an approach isn’t unprecedented, of course; former Austinite Sam Beam’s beloved Iron & Wine has made a career of the low-key approach for more than a decade. But it was nevertheless refreshing to see this careful, quiet songcraft go over so spectacularly among the Zilker crowd, with a Jose Gonzalez whisper carrying as far as a Dave Grohl scream.