Gipsy Kings play it down the middle at HOB

A review of the Gipsy Kings at the House of Blues on February 20, 2009

, Contributing Writer

Although the Gipsy Kings have not had much of a presence on the American scene in recent years, they had no trouble filling the new House of Blues on Friday night. One of the most successful world music acts in history, this band of brothers knows what their audience wants, and they know how to deliver it. What that audience wants is an infectious blend of flamenco guitars and vocals with a pop rhythm section and song structures, on the model of the Kings’ 1989 hit "Bamboleo". They want Nicolas Reyes’ husky baritone singing about love and dancing, and Tonino Baliardo’s clean, precise guitar work, with Latin percussion and synth stings. Since their self-titled 1989 album, the Gipsy Kings have toured the world on this formula, and they scored a hit with the capacity crowd in Boston.

The band’s sound is built on three elements, of which the most pervasive is the rhumba rhythm of the backing guitars. This is convenient for an American audience who might find it awkward to adapt to new rhythms for different songs. By keeping it simple, the band makes the music accessible and danceable. In a room with no seating to speak of, this danceability was put to good use in some pockets of the central pit, where a combination of urban grind, half-remembered salsa, and hippie twirl was evident in an amiable crowd. On top of this wall of rhumba are layers of Baliardo’s guitar work – a style based solidly in his father’s flamenco with melodic and harmonic ideas pulled in from jazz and pop guitarists – and Reyes’ vocals, similarly based in flamenco tradition and amended with more recent influences. These are supplemented by a solid rhythm section of bass, drums, percussion, and keyboards who fleshed out the six-guitar sound without distracting from it – mostly.

The most recognizable element of this mix is Reyes’ voice, familiar to countless Americans from songs like "Bamboleo", "Bem Bem Maria", and "A Mi Manera". This voice is an exuberant vehicle for the uptempo numbers that are the band’s specialty, and tones down nicely for a slower feature like "Un Amor". The mannerisms of traditional flamenco are all there, the smoky growl and the Moorish flourish, and the hits are delivered, for better or for worse, as hits: note-perfect renditions of the song, with a few modifications for twenty years of wear and tear on the vocal chords. The band certainly plays the songs with as much energy as ever, but such rote delivery is noticeable in a music rooted in improvisation. This was particularly striking on "Un Amor" which had a completely new accompaniment, almost Sinatra-esque in flavor, but no discernible change in its melody. Fortunately, between the hits were other songs – whether newer, or from some of their many albums that I’ve missed over the years – which were less familiar, and sounded fresher to my ears. Surprisingly to me (never having heard the band live before) a good number of these were sung by other Reyes brothers. Canut Reyes was particularly notable, setting down his guitar to sing several songs in a style that seemed more free and loose than his brother’s. Nicolas, too, seemed to relax a little on those numbers, cheerfully joining the guitar line to pound out the rhumba rhythm. Canut also changed up the rhythm somewhat, singing a Tejano-styled piece, "Cafe", which shifted from the rhumba to the heavy two-four border beat.

Among the vocal numbers were a healthy set of instrumental numbers, composed and led by guitarist Tonino Baliardo. Baliardo is familiar with but not bound by the flamenco tradition, and has a good sense of harmonic creativity. Unfortunately, he chose to share some of the solo time with a ham-handed keyboard player with a penchant for unleashing his full bag of tricks every time the spotlight landed on him. The crowd seemed to enjoy his trick of winding up every solo as though it were the climax of his career, but Baliardo looked a little bored by it, and I know I was as well.

Purists will tell you that the Gipsy Kings do not play "real flamenco". The purists are correct. Real flamenco is improvised collaboration between a singer, a guitarist, and a dancer. The result is a gripping and emotional spectacle that plumbs the depths of the human spirit, and unfortunately leaves most Americans bored stiff. The Gipsy Kings have abstracted some of the best elements from that tradition and added some others, turning the dancing over to the audience, and making it into a party, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Unfortunately, the House of Blues as a venue is not quite ready for prime time. Run by one of the biggest promoters of concerts in the country and having a slew of other venues to draw management staff from, the newest venue in Boston still couldn’t get the doors open on time. When I arrived at the concert site half an hour after the doors were scheduled to open, I was horrified to find a line running the length of Lansdowne Street. Only ten minutes before showtime, the line started to move in fits and starts, and eventually everyone was able to get through the doors. If chain venues are supposed to bring a higher standard of efficiency and expertise to the business of rock and roll, something went horribly wrong here. Between this and the $4 coat check (and with no seats, it’s hold your coat or check it) you might want to wait until the weather warms up to check this place out. While the space is nice, they’ll probably need until May or June to get their act together, and by that time you won’t need to bring a coat.

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