Rodrigo y Gabriela deliver captivating show

A review of Rodrigo y Gabriela at the Oprheum Theatre on October 23, 2009

, Staff
If you had told me a week ago that I’d find myself in a room with hundreds of Boston’s hippest kids, all of them bopping blissfully to the thumpin’ beats of two flamenco guitarists playing heavy metal, I would have suggested that you might need some fresh air, maybe a change of scenery, or maybe to lay off them funny-smelling cigarettes for a while. As it turns out, that’s what was going on at the Orpheum on Friday night when Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero (better known as the duo Rodrigo y Gabriela) blew through town on their way, apparently, to conquering the world. Or at least, to finding some good vegan grub, the main subject of discussion on their twitter feed.
 
Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero are using a mix of charm and sex appeal and musical talent to achieve a sort of under the radar pop stardom. The duo’s unique sound attracted a nearly full house to the Orpheum on Friday night, and they kept that audience hanging on every note for an hour and a half. One might be surprised to find that there’s a market for a flamenco duo among the youth of Boston, but that’s only before hearing what they’ve done with the traditional style. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take a lot of tweaking to make the guitar-based dance style into something the kids could get behind. Part of the modification was cosmetic – Sanchez and Quintero, who tour as “Rodrigo y Gabriela” make good use of a pretty minimal set of stage effects to give their show a bit of stadium pizazz lacking in a more standard flamenco set. Part of it is repertoire – they’ve got a few well-known rock numbers in their set list. If you’re ever looking to grab some attention to a “traditional” musical genre, be it flamenco guitars or Balkan brass bands or bluegrass, it doesn’t hurt to add a Metallica cover to the album. Part of it is charisma – the two are as cute as kittens, and when a member of the audience shouted out “I love you, Gabriela” it was clear that he was speaking for just about everyone in the room. But none of that would have packed the Orpheum if it weren’t for Gabriela Quintero’s right hand.
As the “rhythm guitarist” in this duo, Quintero takes her job title seriously. Not content to simply supply the chordal accompaniment, she lays down a beat with a flurry of slaps, taps, and whacks at the face, bridge, and strings of her guitar, laying down a solid percussion barrage that incidentally includes a full statement of the chord changes and generally a sketch of the bass part as well. This drumming – making use of the different tones produced by tapping different parts of the guitar – simultaneously recalls the Moorish and Gypsy influences that underlie the old school “Flamenco puro” and, with an insistent deep “thump”, the dance-floor beats of a more recent era. It’s a simple enough trick, an update of the “golpe” of the traditional flamenco style, but in those hands, it’s remarkably effective. The novelty of the technique grabs the attention, and the talent behind the technique keeps that attention focused.
 
Rodrigo’s playing, by comparison, seems almost pedestrian. He plays melodies, with a flatpick – how vanilla is that? This is an injustice, however: Sanchez’s chops come from the ultra-precise school of heavy metal favored by technicians like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, and he’s also absorbed that school’s trick of high-speed minimalism, running repetitions with variations over a simplistic chord change, like a sort of Steve Reich on speed. In this band, he gets to play those ideas, and others derived from more jazz-oriented players (check out his take on “Stairway to Heaven”, widely available on YouTube), without ever having to make room for a singer, and he seems to have a lot of fun doing it. In combination with Gabriela’s inventive rhythms, it’s a lot of fun to listen to, as well. 
Still, when the show is two guitarists playing heavy metal/flamenco instrumentals, one could be forgiven for wondering how much of a show there really is. And the answer is, these two were able to pull this off for an hour and a half and leave a crowd wanting more. They did this by obliterating the idea of the song. Their pieces had definite beginnings and endings, but the beat seemed to flow across those boundaries, beginning as a solid pulse when they entered the stage and sat down on two stools to play three short, traditional-sounding pieces, picking up a little when they stood up to take their places stage right and stage left, building slowly and artfully from one number to the next, breaking only for a moment when Gabriela addressed the crowd briefly. This constant pulse gave the night the feel of a dance party, with a good DJ building the energy slowly, and the crowd seemed primed to dance, stopped only by the bolted-down rows of seats in the Orpheum. They did spend the second half of the show standing and moving as much as the narrow seat pitch would allow – too vigorous a movement would have resulted in a self-inflicted kneecapping – and some intrepid souls took to the aisles to boogie until the ushers returned them to their places. This long slow build turned the inherent similarity of all of the duo’s music – a potential liability – into a mesmerizing asset, as the crowd was happily transfixed by this odd and appealing pairing.

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