Review by Jennifer Gibson; photos by Ken Lackner
Last Saturday’s sold-out Rodrigo y Gabriela show at Center Stage was either heaven or hell, depending on your point of view – heaven if two good-looking Mexican kids sparking mean Latin-flavored heavy metal instrumentals on acoustic guitars is your thing, and hell if you dare halfway mention “flamenco.”
“I hope you didn’t expect to see a flamenco act,” Rodrigo told the crowd in what was only the first of a handful of pre-emptive strikes. “If you did, you came to the wrong place.”
“We’re not flamenco,” added Gabriela. “We’re not fucking jazz.”
And so it went with these two self-described metal heads from Mexico City, and they held tight to their claims and promises to show up the reviewers who insist on mis-labeling due to their Latin American roots. Clad in nothing but unassuming jeans and T-shirts, they thrashed around stage playing torch-hot, mostly original compositions, many from last year’s 11:11, a stunning instrumental record devoted entirely to their own personal guitar heroes. From the show opener “Hanuman,” the first track off the record and the one dedicated to Carlos Santana, through to the Metallica covers and Dimebag Darrell tributes, Rodrigo y Gabriela flew through the fire with bare fingertips and astonishing precision and skill and obvious love and somehow managed to shed not a drop of blood, although doing so would have been pretty metal of them.
The duo are so raw and spot on, in fact, that they don’t even need a backing band. Rodrigo occasionally banged on a tiny drum kit for rhythm, but they mostly created their own gypsy rock and roll beats through crazy slap guitar and the audience’s inability to not participate. I certainly can’t play guitar like them, but my hands almost bled from the incessant need to clap. My throat might as well have gushed blood, too, from all the screaming I couldn’t stop doing. And my ears, well, if they weren’t damaged by the high-pitched approval of the varied walks and stages of life in the crowd around me, then I got out lucky.
We even got a glimpse of just how dangerously bad ass Rodrigo y Gabriela would be if they went electric. Through a haze of smoke and a black and red death mask of a backdrop, Rodrigo pulled out his new baby, a gorgeous black and silver-toned Gibson electric guitar he scored a few days before in Nashville. As the low lights blindingly bounced off the smooth body, he tore through some licks that left my metal head companion with his jaw on the ground. As I said before, they may not look the part, but both are just sickeningly good guitar players. The guy standing next to me said it best: “I’ve seen the Gipsy Kings before and they have, like, six guitarists. Rodrigo y Gabriela are better.”
Too bad the same can’t be said for their mentor and opening act, former Testament guitarist turned pseudo-jazz musician Alex Skolnick, now fronting the Alex Skolnick Trio. An even better term for what he’s doing now may be lite instrumental jam metal and yes, it’s as bad as the name implies. It’s pretty harsh to watch an aging metal dude with his pants sagging at mid-ass level turn Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye” into a soulless hatchet job for the ages while he spits local shout outs to drum up support (Fat Matt’s and the Cheetah Club apparently play well with the Atlanta crowd), but Rodrigo y Gabriela seem to worship him and even brought him on stage to jam for a few near the end. And when it comes right down to it, it may not even be fair to say some of these things about Skolnick, because clearly some people loved his show. “It’s like Ren and Stimpy meets Judas Priest,” one guy said to me. But as far as I can tell, that’s the most interesting thing you can say about his current situation. Thankfully the mesmerizing guitar gods Rodrigo y Gabriela were on hand with their own set of heroics to make the night worth writing about.