Show Review: Rodrigo y Gabriela and C.U.B.A. at The Fox Oakland, 4/5/2012

by Jonathan Pirro on April 6, 2012

An acoustic/electric faceoff with Rodrigo y Gabriela

An acoustic/electric faceoff with Rodrigo y Gabriela

Transitioning from being a solo artist (or in this case, a minimalistic acoustic duo) to having a full band behind you is a great risk, no matter what type of musician chooses to take it. Your songs transform, in scope and shape, in feel and form, and the result can either pull in a larger audience than ever before, or cause even the most adoring critics to suddenly turn their noses up at you. Such a dramatic shift in the mood and presentation of your art requires a great deal of work and dedication to perfecting your craft, and it may even require you to explore new methods of songwriting and arrangement that you had never approached within your career. When Mexican thrash-flamenco maestros Rodrigo y Gabriela traveled to Havana and recorded their new album, Area 52, with a host of 13 Cuban musicians (tonight appearing in the form of musical ensemble C.U.B.A.), fans and critics alike paled at the thought of the super-concentrated thrill of the pair’s frenetic guitar mastery drowning in a sea of lush but overwhelming sound. On their 2012 tour, the two have set out to prove that none of the magic that they’ve amazed audiences the world over with has disappeared; indeed, new life has been breathed into it, as it scales into a higher, deeper, and even more magnificent form.

Rodrigo Sánchez on electric guitar

Rodrigo Sánchez on electric guitar

To provide room for both the mind-bogglingly complex solos and verses that embodied the core of their songs, and the opportunity for their backing band to offer their own contributions without over the center stage, Rodrigo y Gabriela’s songs have now been expanded into extended jams, with remarkable solos from the lead pair as well as some of the C.U.B.A. members themselves. For a few of the songs, Rodrigo Sánchez donned an electric guitar instead of an acoustic, allowing for some trickier passages and powerful effects to be mixed into the songs. When a greater emphasis was drawn to Gabriela Quintero, she emphasized both her trademark percussive beating of her own guitar, as well as some spacey warping and flanging effects, which washed through the theater with an almost alien sound. Many of the leading musical motifs in each song were doubled by the efforts of the band, with trumpeter Amik Guerra and saxophonist Leonardo Castellini Castillo often picking up the central melodies and playing them in conjunction with Rodrigo, while percussionist Bernald Edwin Sanz Mijares dueling with Gabriela on the percussive passages.

Backing band C.U.B.A.

Backing band C.U.B.A.

Of course, in addition to simply enhancing the size and depth of the sound of the songs, the majority of the pieces were also stretched out into massive extended jam sessions. With a primarily Latin- or South-American feel to the music, and with a majority of the expansions coming in the form of intricate solo pieces from the members of C.U.B.A., it was the otherworldly equivalent of a jam band performance, but without any of the stigma sometimes associated with many of the gigantic bands of the “jam scene”. Each song evolved, undulated, and progressed in ways that took it to both more intense levels of instrumentation, and new dimensions that abandoned all facets of the original piece entirely. While it was sometimes a bit confusing as to whether a song had concluded, or if the musicians were extending out into an unexpected direction, each song eventually was brought back home with masterful precision, and the audience expressed their approval in a wildly vocal fashion.

Gabriela Quintero displays her percussive brilliance

Gabriela Quintero displays her percussive brilliance

The set itself was designed to give both old and new fans a chance to experience Rodrigo y Gabriela’s classic catalogue in its new level of sonic exploration. Most of the songs were from the duo’s last record, the 2009 opus 11:11, with a few much-loved classics (including “Tamacun” and “Diablo Rojo”) from their self-titled release of 2006. In addition to the in-song solos offered by both the core pair and the members of C.U.B.A., both Rodrigo and Gabriela each took several long minutes to craft mesmerizing, stunning solo sets, spanning for nearly 10 minutes for each of them. C.U.B.A. departed from the stage for these one-on-one thrashfests, leaving the two alone for three cult favorites — “Savitri”, “Hora Zero” and “Buster Voodoo” — giving the audience a chance to re-experience the jaw-dropping power of their musical skill in its rawest form.

An exchange of energy and joy

An exchange of energy and joy

If there was any question as to whether or not Rodrigo y Gabriela’s decision to bring along C.U.B.A. was poor, such misconceptions were absolutely demolished, based on the reactions of the crowd. Equally ecstatic and wildly enthusiastic cheers were garnered by each individual lead, as well as any of the backing musicians who got their own chance to take the spotlight for a mesmerizing solo. Any time Rodrigo surveyed and beckoned to the crowd, the floor became a sea of clapping hands and swaying hips, as the audience was both enthralled and engaged with the vibrant and addictive energy that flowed forth from the musicians onstage. From their explosive onstage debut to the final blast of guitars and cymbals that accompanied the end of their set, Rodrigo y Gabriela held court and drew in their onlookers passionately, inviting them graciously to explore the new world they had created.

Rodrigo trades licks with Alex Wilson of C.U.B.A.

Rodrigo trades licks with Alex Wilson of C.U.B.A.

As an avid fan of the gentle but furious brilliance I have always associated with Rodrigo y Gabriela and their thunderous, flamenco-laced guitar assault, I was more than a little skeptical about whether or not C.U.B.A. would eclipse their conductors and pull them into a state of definition and safeness that comes with a collective of musicians playing with a common style. Instead, I was greeted warmly with a show that wanted to erase my preconceptions, and to show off a set of expert musicians who will likely find themselves unequaled in their class of performance. Each new solo and song was a new trip to take, a new city to explore, and I found myself happy to welcome the journey. The extended centerpiece performance of Rodrigo y Gabriela playing alone together provided me a comfortable feeling of security, in moments where the size of the band started to encroach upon overwhelming, and the balance between the performance styles was excellent. If Rodrigo y Gabriela decide to continue in this musical direction, I can now say that I will welcome it, although I hope that they never abandon the small but fierce presence that they have been so well known for.

Rodrigo y Gabriela's setlist (with set changes indicated)

Rodrigo y Gabriela's setlist (with set changes indicated)

 

Photos from the show (all photos by Jonathan Pirro):

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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