Whenever my father and I discuss great concerts he brings up the first time he saw the Jimi Hendrix Experience. "When just those three guys walked out on stage," he always says, "I said there's no way just the three of them could make all that sound like on the record. And they didn't. They made more."
I always understood what he was getting at (I was mostly just jealous he got to experience Hendrix several times) but I never really appreciated how truly awesome that sensation is until seeing Rodrigo y Gabriela
photos by Keegan Hamilton
The two of them stride out onto a dark stage, strap on their nylon-string acoustic guitars and began slowly, playing their unique, vaguely Spanish rhythms. He finger-picks a scale of high notes and she taps the body and muted strings of her guitar with her fingertips to keep time. It builds gradually for maybe 30 seconds or a minute until -- whoosh
-- it is breathtakingly fast.
Rodrigo strikes a sculpted rocker pose, closes his eyes and plucks his guitar with a style that is driving, relentless, masculine. Gabriela bobs slightly to the beat that she drums with her fingers and palms on her guitar while she simultaneously shreds the rhythm chords with a whirl of strokes and finger-picking.
It truly looks and sounds like the two of them can't possibly be playing
that many notes so quickly to such a perfect, cascading, crescendoing
rhythm. There's a great scene in the film Amadeus
when the King tells
Mozart his new song is good but "there are simply too many notes."
That's the feeling you get from Rodrigo y Gabriela. It looks impossible and sounds impossibly beautiful.
The songs are all instrumental and they blend together, gathering steam until they hit a peak and come barreling down the other side. When they stop, it's often abrupt, with a few hard strummed chords. After three or four songs, the duo stops to catch its breath. They're dripping sweat and it glistens on the pick guards of their guitars.
Gabriela steps behind a microphone on her side of the stage. She's pretty, with light skin and high cheekbones, and when she talks she seems a little shy. Scanning the audience, she looks thrilled that the Pageant is packed with people. She talks about how they're from Mexico and just shot a music video at an animal sanctuary in Zihuatanejo. "We wanted to play a concert but it was too hot," she says, drawing a chorus friendly laughter.
Later she explains that their music is definitely not
flamenco. "Hardcore flamenco fans know it's not flamenco," she says. They used to play in a thrash metal band called Tierra Acida (she flashes the metal horns with her hand) and they transferred that style to a pair of acoustic guitars. Their first album was dedicated to Metallica, she says, and they just met James Hetfield the other night in Chicago. "He said we rocked," she beams. "It was totally amazing."
It's easy to understand why their music is so easily branded as flamenco. It's not just that they're Hispanic and they play wide-neck flamenco guitars. Just like flamenco is ultimately percussion driven with the click-clack of the dancer's heels and/or castanets, so is the sound of Rodrigo y Gabriela. The way she (and sometimes he) strikes the guitar and uses her feet is the foundation of each song.
There is also the passion and sheer joy with which they perform. They smile at each other and shout encouragement but there is something deeper -- I don't want to say romance because it sounds cheesy -- but when she's sitting on an amplifier playing and he's down on one knee with his guitar and they're staring into each other's eyes there is something
there that the audience feels privileged to see. It's that exhibition of raw, intense emotion that is most evocative of flamenco.
Most impressive, though, is the technical brilliance with which they play their guitars. There's no looping and the only effects they use are a wah-pedal and, occasionally, light distortion. At one point Rodrigo slides his finger all the way down the neck of the guitar to the point over the soundhole where he's plucking furiously, a maneuver the guy standing behind me aptly describes as "straight makin' the guitar his bitch." Gabriela, meanwhile, attacks the strings, pounding them and the guitar to the point that her fingertips must have callouses on their callouses.
Toward the end of the set Alex Skolnick (of the thrash metal band Testament
and presently R y G's opening act, as part of the acid jazz group Alex Skolnick Trio
) joins the pair on stage. He looks a little timid with the acoustic guitar and switches to electric after one song. The finger-tapping and wailing fits perfectly with Rodrigo y Gabriela's sound and they look thrilled to be sharing the stage with one of their metal heroes. What stands out, though, is that they get the same action on the strings of their acoustic guitars that he gets on his electric.
Their set lasts for just a little over an hour and forty minutes. They play just one encore and leave to a standing ovation, slapping hands with the audience in the front row as they exit. Clusters of people linger, throwing around superlatives like "awesome," "amazing," and "mind-blowing" that they'll probably use many years from now to try to explain to their kids what it was like to see virtuoso guitarists perform at their peak.