Junip photos by Renata Steiner
Sharon Van Etten photos by Dave Lichterman
It was a frigid Wednesday night on Capitol Hill, but all one had to do to escape the cold was to step into Neumos, which was as crowded as I’d seen it in a while. Both Sharon Van Etten and Junip had performed live in-studio on KEXP earlier in the day, and both Van Etten and Junip frontman Jose Gonzalez, who are most commonly known as solo performers, would be playing with a backing band in front of a Seattle audience for the first time. Junip was the main attraction, however, and though fans had had a few months to digest their debut LP Fields, the crowd was buzzing in anticipation of seeing the normally quaint and contemplative Gonzalez rock out with a full band.
Sharon Van Etten had just started her set when I walked in, and it was hard not to be absolutely floored by her otherworldly voice, which carried the whole performance. She stood in the center of the stage with a helmet of black hair and a red hollow-body guitar that looked like it was too big for her small frame. She was anxious, quirky, and almost klutzy on stage, and talked giddily with the audience between songs. During them her voice was absolutely mesmerizing. Also on stage were a bassist and a drummer, but aside from acting as an adequate rhythm section, they didn’t add a whole lot. Toward the end of her set, she spoke of how playing solo was “how [she] connects with people,” and for her last two songs, the band left the stage and the house lights concentrated on Van Etten. These last two songs were easily the most powerful and affecting of the night, and emphasized the fact that it was all about Van Etten, and that the band was basically expendable. After she was done, Van Etten accidentally bumped her head on the mic before urging the audience to come over and chat with her at the merch stand.
Junip live consisted of Jose Gonzalez, Tobias Winterkorn on the keys and effects, Elias Araya on drums, as well as a bassist and a hand percussionist. And make no mistake about it, Junip is far more than just Jose Gonzalez with a backing band. They were formed in the late 90s, but didn’t produce any significant recorded material before Gonzalez went on to his successful solo career. An EP, Black Refuge, was released in 2006, another this year, and their full-length debut Fields came out in September. The band was in sync the entire night, sounding like they had been together for years, and each member brought something unique to the table that played an integral role in Junip’s sound. Everyone in the band was so good and played so well together that it was easy to forget Jose Gonzalez ever even had a solo career.
That’s not to say Gonzalez’s quiet charisma and one-of-a-kind talent were lost on the audience. His voice contains so many intricacies and subtleties, and though it comes across as very conversational, he always accentuates just the right notes in just the right places to give it that soothing, melodious quality that helped make his solo albums so great. Between songs he was mild-mannered and cool, but clearly enjoying himself, often flashing a grin to one band member or another. He also introduced nearly everything, a courtesy you don’t see very much anymore. They played a good deal of songs from Fields, including “To The Grain,” “Sweet & Bitter,” “It’s Alright,” as well as the single “Always.” They also mixed in a few songs from previous EPs, including “Black Refuge” and “Chickens.”
The story, though, was how good Junip was as a whole. Toward the end of “Without You,” Gonzalez ceded control to Winterkorn, who played an amazing keyboard part that made the song. Araya came in later with some heavy drums, and the entire band wrapped the song up with a heavenly little jam. Despite the number of layers each song contained – including shakers, hand drums, and various electronic effects –- nothing sounded muddled at all, and the songs were constructed and executed with a certain economy and cohesiveness that sounded divine. It all just worked really well.
After announcing that Winterkorn had just had a child born that very day, the band quickly came back out for an encore, playing two songs. They finished with a bang, playing “In Every Direction,” the first song off Fields and perhaps the jam-iest number they had played all night. It saw all five members of the band going at it full-bore, sounding terrific, and was the perfect note to end on before heading out to brave the cold air on Pike Street once again.