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The Mass Media

Keeping The Rain Away:

Singer/Songwriter Raymond Gonzalez, performing under shelter of the Science Building
Jason Campos
Singer/Songwriter Raymond Gonzalez, performing under shelter of the Science Building

As I write this, it is raining outside. I am listening to Raymond Gonzalez’s CD The Company You Keep. The music blends with the sound of the rain. The delicate patterns of Gonzalez’s masterful acoustic-guitar picking echo the falling drops, now muted and measured as showers of harmony fall across the fret board-now quick, complex and strident like a late spring storm.

It feels like the rain as well, this music; it has that same refreshing, calm and melancholy mood. This is quiet-evening-on-the-back-porch music, tinged with heartache and hope. It is, in a word, bittersweet.

And above it all is Gonzalez’s clear tenor voice, more bittersweet than anything. A ray of sunlight almost just obscured by storm clouds, it is capable of carrying the listener upwards along clean, well-crafted lines of melody and of pulling him into the poetry of Gonzalez’s introspective lyrics. Gonzalez’s songs seem to both invite the rain and to ward it away.

Raymond Gonzalez has been a guitar teacher and a faculty member of the Music Department at UMass Boston for the past two years. Originally from California, Gonzalez received his Master’s in Composition from the New England Conservatory. He is a veteran performer, who has been playing gigs since he was sixteen, long before he left his native state. Classically trained, he says his influences include “everything from Dylan to Ellington.”

Perhaps it is that profusion of influence that accounts for the versatility of Gonzalez’s own songs. Gonzalez is not just another “folkie”-he expands the orthodox folk song, enriching it with elements of country and bluegrass. There is more than a touch of the blues in his songs, and subtle allusions towards jazz appear here and there in his solos and chord voicings. There is even a classical presence in his work, most notably in his command of structure and attention to harmonic balance.

In short, Gonzalez pretty much covers the map in terms of what one can do with an acoustic guitar, and he has the chops to pull it off without seeming showy or inconsistent. His playing has a subdued, no-frills character that compliments the style of his songs. Now and then, ornate little finger-runs punctuate the end of phrases, but these details, rather than distract, tend rather to catch the ear and bring it back to the melody.

And the voice doesn’t hurt either. Gonzalez has an engaging tone, with a just a smidgen of country twang. At moments, he reminds one of the mournful/soulful vocal stylings of Chris Isaak.

I had a chance to see Gonzalez perform here on campus Wednesday June 5th as part of the Sounds of Summer Music Festival. It was a cold, gray day, threatening to rain.

Somehow, it seemed appropriate. Like I was saying before, the wind and the rain are no strangers to Gonzalez’s songs. Not only present as a feeling in the music, the evocation of storm weather, of natural forces and events, is an integral part of Gonzalez’s lyrical world. It’s a near perfect marriage of form and content where the words clarify the feeling of the music and the music says all that words can’t say.

Gonzalez has a talent for natural imagery and for the poetics of place. Many of his songs are set against the background of New England, and abound with wind, clouds, stormy seas, and, of course, rain.

His music has a feel also of open spaces, encapsulating the feeling of wonder and hope, as well as sadness, that open spaces, be they highways or arctic oceans, can evoke. What makes poetry of Gonzalez’s sharply drawn images is the way in which he uses the elements of the external world to express the storms and spaces of the emotional world. Throughout the songs, there is a sense of the human heart being both revealed and overwhelmed by the forces of nature.

Some of his lyrics demonstrate a poetry of unaffectedness, pared-down to the bone of truth: “I am addicted/I am confused/I am convinced now/That I’m with you”, he sings on the track “Lesser Gods”, and the lines are startling in their honesty. Others exhibit a wry sense of humor: “Strings of words/In groups of two and three/When they don’t make sense/We call it poetry.” Gonzalez’s words make a whole lot of sense, and they’re poetry too, of a quality not normally encountered in the average song lyric.

One particularly fine song, performed at the concert, was about a sailor lost at sea in the frozen Arctic, a sad tale made all the more wrenching for being told from the point of view of his wife back on shore who does not and cannot know his fate. Several of Gonzalez’s songs are like this; he is a born storyteller who weaves moving parables of the human condition.

Live, Gonzalez shows himself to be an impressive guitarist. On the CD, the layered sound of his guitar seems like it has to be the result of over-dubbing-it’s just too rich and complex to be coming from one source. It’s a bit of a surprise to realize, watching Gonzalez perform, that all that music does indeed come from just one guitar, the result of smart, creative arrangements-rhythm and bass-lines on the low strings, picking and harmonies on the high-that create a full sound. You sometimes get the impression that there must be more one than person playing, but no. Gonzalez is just that good.

The songs, for all the complexity of the guitar-work, maintain a core of space, which keeps them balanced and allows them to develop fully without becoming heavy. Gonzalez is a gifted instrumentalist, as evidenced on “The Company You Keep” (which features several instrumental tracks), but he knows how to make a song work and never tramples his voice with his playing. When he starts to sing, those clear melodies take over, and the guitarmanship takes a supporting role, fleshing out the song like a one-man-backing-band. It’s a wise choice, because as lovely as his playing is, Gonzalez’s words are also worth listening to.

There is a lot of human uncertainty in those words, but in the end it seems the redemptive powers of love win out, the storm is beaten. It’s not over-dramatic; it’s just the natural way of things-a way of things that Raymond Gonzalez seems to have absorbed into his art. While the laid-back, blue sound of his songs might make for perfect rainy-day listening, the insights to be gained from the wise and poetic heart that is revealed in Gonzalez’s lyrics and in his expressive playing might be just the thing to keep the rain away.

About the Contributor
Jason Campos served as The Mass Media staff for the following years and positions: Editor-in-Chief: 2003-2004; Managing Editor: 2002-2003; and Sports Editor: 2001-2002, 2002-2003, 2003-2004 Disclaimer: Years served is based on online database and may not detail entire service.