A near-capacity crowd filled the Hollywood Bowl to the brim this past Saturday night. Gustavo Dudamel was in the house, along with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and some other folks. But for once, the crowd was not really there to see The Dude. Sure, there were a few screams of “We love you, Gustavo!” but the loudest cheers were saved for the night’s headliners: Rodrigo y Gabriela.
I’m not going to pretend that I knew who Rodrigo y Gabriela were before Friday, let alone did I consider myself a fan. A little bit of YouTube footage and one amazing concert later, and I am definitely now a fan and will be doing a great deal to learn more about them and their music.
As the story goes, Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero met when both were non-classically trained hard-core rockers in Mexico. They become disenchanted with the local scene and decided to shed extraneous bandmates and instruments before ending up as an instrumental duo in, of all places, Ireland. They survived by busking and doing small gigs until the their break led them to appearances all over Ireland and the UK. Their eponymous 2006 release entered the Irish charts at #1, and they have not looked back since. U.S. exposure was helped along by appearances on late night TV and a profile on MTV, among other things. Their last appearance in Los Angeles was in 2010 when they triumphed at the Greek Theatre.
When they first stepped onto a darkened Hollywood Bowl stage on Saturday with their amplified acoustic guitars in hand, this uninitiated listener expected traditional latin-styled playing tinged with perhaps some more modern influences. At first blush, I seemed to get what I was expecting as the pair started with “Hanuman” and “Triveni” demonstrating their usual setup: Gabriela displays her uncanny flamenco-tinged ability to strum rhythm on the strings while simultaneously beating complex percussion on the body of the guitar, all while Rodrigo picks lead guitar. However, within a few minutes, it became clear that their musical sensibilities had as much in common (perhaps more) with English folk-rock stars Mumford & Sons as they did with the pop-flamenco likes of Gipsy Kings.
(Video of a previous performance of “Triveni”)
Indeed, as the evening continued on, the range of influences and experiences from which they drew became more apparent in works like “11:11,” “Buster Voodoo,” and each of their solo turns, with more liberal use of distortion pedaling and left-to-right-and-back spatial effects with the speakers. You could sense their trash-metal roots coming more to the forefront, most notably in Rodrigo’s playing and stance (Jack Black would have been appreciative of his legs-spread-wide power-rock stance) — at one point in his solo, he brought cheers and laughs from the audience by briefly quoting Slash’s iconic opening riff to “Sweet Child of Mine” before pausing to wag a contradictory finger with a smile and eventually returning back to his own work.
(Rodrigo y Gabriela performing “11:11” on Aug 13, 2011 at the Hollywood Bowl, video by CK Dexter Haven)
Throughout it all, their playing engaged and energized the audience, many of whom were probably regular Bowl subscribers who had never seen or heard them before. A pair of individual musicians could easily get lost in the vastness of the Bowl stage, especially when their playing became more introspective and one or both of the guitarists closed their eyes and lowered their head to their instruments; this is one case where the Bowl’s amplification and large video screens certainly came in handy to help draw in the large crowd.
Yet even in the quieter moments, as in “11:11,” their playing was moody but never got small, maintaining its intensity on every track. And as their set reached its climax with “Diablo Rojo,” the roar, dancing, and clapping from the crowd — box seats as well as benches — made it clear that Rodrigo y Gabriela had won many converts. Very few people appeared to to be making an early exit down the aisles and to their stacked-parked cars, many screaming “uno mas” as their encores came to an end.
For their part, the Los Angeles Philharmonic gamely played the role of back-up band to the two Mexican-cum-Irish musicians, adding atmosphere and texture whenever their contributions were requested. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya did his best to follow the improvisatory tempo changes of the soloists, becoming noticeably out of sync only once towards the end of the evening before orchestra and guitar players meshed seamlessly again after a few measures. When not playing, many members of the orchestra seemed enthralled by the duo’s talents, cellist Gloria Lum especially noticeable with a large smile on her face and head nodding to the rhythm in between her own music-making.
The orchestra’s presence seemed more trivial when backing the other guest act of the evening, Los Amigos Invisibles. The quintet made their appearance largely thanks to their friend, fellow Venezuelan and LA Phil Music Director, Gustavo Dudamel, who decided to borrow the podium from Mr. Harth-Bedoya while his countrymen were on stage. The disco-string backing that the orchestra provided was largely superfluous to what is essentially a Latin-pop-rock party band, especially when they bring their own synth-string playing keyboardist. No matter. The quintet played and shimmied through their five-song set, with and without orchestral backing, and no one seemed to mind either way.
Each of the bandmates made their contributions heard, some adding a little bit of an 80’s retro feel to the evening: Vocalist Julio Briceño led the festivities; guitarist José Luis Pardo played his funky guitar while looking and acting like what one might imagine AC/DC’s Angus Young would be like had he been born in South America; Armando Figueredo looking and posing like every bit of a reincarnation of Flock of Seagulls (or perhaps Hugh Grant’s character, Alex Fletcher, from the fictional band PoP!); percussionist Mauricio Arcas added some vocals of his own along with a little rhythmic spice, while bassist José Rafael Torres and drummer Juan Manuel Roura provided the musical foundations with smiles, energy, and minimal fuss. As for Maestro Dudamel, his largest contribution came before the band’s bouncy final number, “Ponerte en Cuarto,” when he emplored the audience to get on their feet and dance; many complied.
There were also some de riguer orchestral pieces. After starting off with a plodding “Star-Spangled Banner,” Mr. Harth-Bedoya led incisive and persuasive accounts of Enrique Soro’s “Danza fantastica” and the Interlude and Dance from “La vida breve” by Manuel de Falla; the Intermezzo from Enrique Granados’s opera, “Goyescas,” served in the equivalent role after the short intermission. Principal Clarinet Michele Zukovsky played her solo moments in the Falla and Granados with plangent elegance, with other key solo turns by Ariana Ghez (Principal Oboe), David Buck (Principal Flute), Donald Green (Principal Trumpet), and Carolyn Hove (English Horn) almost always being correctly highlighted on the Bowl’s video screens. The fireworks (or the “massive fireworks pollution thing” as Señor Sanchez called them) that served as the pre-encore end of the evening were shot off to a soundtrack of the “Aquerala do Brasil” by Ary Barroso (in the arrangement by John Wasson) and “Tico-Tico no fuba” by José Gomes “Zequinha” de Abreu.
But no matter how many other people populated the Hollywood Bowl stage, the evening belonged to “El Rodri y La Gabi.” The music world is full of so-called cross-over artists that are marketed to appeal to a broader audience than typically is interested in “serious music” fare; in practice, many of these simply dumb-down offerings of traditional classical-pops standards. Judging by the wide range of ages and ethnicities surrounding me, all expressing their awe and admiration at pair of guitarists, Rodrigo y Gabriela transcended stereotypes, connecting with more people than most cross-over artists. Kudos to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association for presenting this wonderful duo to its audiences.
RANDOM TRIVIA FROM THE EVENING:
- Rodrigo y Gabriela offer a free download of “Triveni” for anyone willing to share an email address in exchange. CLICK HERE and follow the instructions on the box on the right before they decide to change their mind.
- Nathan Cole, recently arrived First Associate Concertmaster, sat in the concertmaster’s chair for this concert.
- In addition to the music, the other essential part of a Hollywood Bowl experience is food and wine, and this night’s visit to the Bowl included an experience worth its own blog post. I’ll do my best to get to it in the coming days.
- Speaking about food and blogs . . . Christie Bishop, writer and food blogger extraordinaire and publisher of “Pardon My Crumbs” (not to mention a friend of CKDH) was also in attendance and purported to have an amazing time. In addition, many other friends also happened to be in the audience, and had it not been for the itinerant joy/leash that is social networking via mobile phone, I never would have known.
Gustavo Dudamel, special guest
UPDATE: Here is the setlist as posted on the LA Phil Facebook page: