The Rite of LeoninoBy: José Manuel Simián
It is safe to assume that a good portion of the few hundred people who attended Jorge González’s concert at Manhattan’s El Museo del Barrio on Thursday night may not have known what they were in for. Some of them may have paused to consider the fact that the event was billed as the official launch of Naked Tunes—the album he released under the moniker Leonino—and some may have even listened to the record a few times with mixed feelings, yet still hoping for the “real” Jorge González to show up after playing a few of his new songs.
But the lucky ones who entered the 5th Avenue museum’s auditorium with an open mind were in for a treat. Because González performed nothing short of a miracle on the fittingly naked stage. He completely reinvented himself into a new persona—Leonino. An artist who writes English songs that draw mostly from R&B, soul and gospel—and sings them with a bare passion that veers closely to religious faith.
The suggestion that there is a spiritual dimension to the songs in Naked Tunes is not arbitrary. Not only does González give a personal touch to the harmonies and language of gospel in some of the Leonino tunes (see “My Time Is Gonna Come” and “How Many Times Did You Save My Soul”), but during the concert he explicitly talked about praying and believing in the spirit of ancestors being among us.
More importantly, González’s onstage transformation into Leonino was an act of artistic faith, a singer/songwriter following his intuitions and passion for American music at large and into the open. Singing alone with his acoustic guitar (with the occasional finger snap or handclap), or accompanied by an inventive (and at times jazzy) piano player, González performed the 10 tracks of Naked Tunes in 45 minutes like a man on a minimalistic pop mission—one that involved simultaneously giving life to Leonino (addressing the largely Chilean crowd only in English) while purifying himself of all the bad times that had inspired him to create the alter ego and these songs in the first place.
And when the rite was complete, González put Leonino to rest. He came out for an encore, now speaking in Spanish and sitting at the piano to play beautiful—yet equally stark—renditions of his Prisioneros classics “Tren al Sur” and “El Baile de los Que Sobran.” The audience, now doubly perplexed, didn’t know if they should clap or just listen to what they had been waiting for all along. But we can’t really blame them: it’s not every day that you watch this kind of transformation happen before your eyes.