On the drive up to Red Rocks my brother and I alternated discussing how you could describe Rodrigo y Gabriela's music to a neophyte and speculating what the crowd would look like. When we rolled up around 7:45, we were greeted by one of the most diverse crowds we'd ever seen. While my brother wagered that Rodrigo y Gabriela would attract an older crowd, I fully expected to see a younger crowd filled with music nerds. Turns out, we were both right. The crowd was filled with people from all walks of life from young dread headed hippies to middle aged stockbroker types to everything in between.
By the time we took our seats, opener Xavier Rudd and his band were in the middle of their third song. Best known for incorporating the guttural sounds of an aboriginal didgeridoo and loose funked-out acoustic guitar strumming, Xavier Rudd has been a well known rising star in the tie-dyed jamband world for quite a few summers now.
Rudd's set represented all that's loathesome to me about jamband music: Endlessly droning songs with too many instrumental solos and a lack of overall rhythmic variety between the songs. I didn't get it at all. The gimmick of using an Australian tree-root pipe that makes animal-like noises is just not enough for me.
A good portion of the crowd below me, however, was spinning like fireflies in the moonlight, making it clear that at least some people were engaged in what he was doing. Myself, I was pretty ready for him to wrap it up, so when the end of the set finally came, it was grateful.
Between the end of Rudd set and the start of Rodrigo y Gabriela's, I made small talk with a few folks sitting near me, including a young couple from Washington DC who told me this was their third Rod and Gab show this summer -- Rod and Gab! Turns out Rodrigo y Gabriela have earned an Americanized nickname from their fans.
As for me, I'll admit it: I was a little late to the party when it came to getting hip to the acoustic guitar badassery of Rodrigo y Gabriela. The pair first crossed my radar about two summers ago when I saw a YouTube clip of the duo from Mexico City-by-way-of-Ireland performing their version of the thrash metal classic "Orion" Metallica.
As the lights went down and our eyes and ears turned towards the stage, the first thing that struck us was the stage layout, or lack thereof. Instead of drumsets on risers huddling beneath massive scaffoldings of lights and lasers, Rodrigo y Gabiela's stage consisted of five road gear cases plopped across the stage in a semi-circle in front of a stage banner backdrop that resembled a gigantic gash from a tiger's claws. There were also some old school spotlights scattered here and there, but that was pretty much it. The absence of distractions, turned out to be a good thing, as it allowed us all to focus on the music.
When the house lights finally dimmed and the background music stopped, Rodrigo y Gabriela walked out from the darkness armed only with matching acoustic guitars and dressed modestly in short sleeve shirts and jeans. The crowd erupted into hoots and hollers while the duo sat on the small road cases on the stage sitting opposite from each other.
In short order, the songs increased in technicality with sounds I didn't know were possible from acoustic guitars suddenly filling the stage from all sides. I learned quickly by watching them that simple hand gestures like slapping, tapping, and rubbing can create some pretty far out sounds. Of course every new song played delivered even more surprises, all of which further melted my brain.
How in the world did these two learn to play guitar like that? I wondered. To say it was a mind blowing display of musical creativity and sheer, raw talent in action would be a colossal understatement. Once the music started, I never once noticed the humble stage decor or lack of flashing lights and lasers. And can I just say that Gabriela threw down like Slayer's Kerry King all night long on her fragile looking acoustic guitar.
Of course, like any good show stopping performance, the duo held back a few surprises till the very end. In succession, one-by-one, Rodrigo y Gabriela began introducing their three special guests, starting with fusion jazz violinist superstar Shenkar, who brought an expansive lushness with, frankly, a touch of creepiness -- imagine the Cure writing an instrumental soundtrack to Indiana Jones.
After a few songs with Shenkar, Rodrigo grabbed the microphone and announced their second special guest, a well known musician from Los Angeles who wanted to say a few words first. I don't think really anyone in the crowd knew what was coming next. From the back of the stage where violinist Shenkar exited moments before strode the unmistakable profile of Rage Against The Machine's frontman Zach De La Rocha. What? Seriously? Hell yes.
While Rod and Gab were riffing background guitar noise, Zach sucked the wind out of our sails, though, with the longest political rant I think I've heard in recent memory. I'm all about free speech and, hey, it's Zach De La Rocha from Rage, but honestly, his long-winded political rant with acoustic guitar backdrop turned me off like a lightswitch. I mean, get the fact that Rodrigo y Gabriela are from Mexico. I get the fact that Zach de la Rocha is all about boycotting Arizona for their anti illegal immigration laws. I get it. I get it. We all got it after the first two minutes.
After what seemed like an eternity of preaching, thankfully, our patience of having to endure de la Rocha's impassioned political speech on unity and activism was rewarded by a pretty smoking version of Rage Against The Machine's classic anthem "Bomb Track" that simultaneously melted faces and got every last acoustic music snob sitting down on their feet up and jumping around like it was 1996 all over again. Good times.
For what it's worth, Rodrigo and Gabriela probably did much more to convince people of their convictions on immigration by letting their actions speak louder than the preaching words of Rage Against The Machine's stridently liberal activist frontman.
With two special guests down and one left to go, I think we were all wondering exactly the same thing: How do you top having Zach De La Rocha doing Rage Against The Machine songs live? Rodrigo ended the suspense when he took the mike and announced that their final guest was someone who inspired them both to study the acoustic guitar. He also let us know that he and Gabriela would be leaving the stage for a few minutes because, as he so eloquently put it, "We're gonna let him play by himself, because, frankly, we'd probably fuck up if we tried playing with him."
At which point, Rodrigo called for Al Dimeola, the undisputed world heavyweight champion of acoustic guitar, to take the stage. There was more than a few music nerds in the crowd who obviously knew who Dimeola was because you could hear the excited, hushed, chattering of countless husbands and boyfriends laying out the credentials of the revered guitar slinger on stage. After a few minutes of the most insane and ridiculous acoustic guitar playing I've ever witnessed in my life, Rodrigo and Gabriela joined Dimeola onstage to close out the night on the final couple songs.
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The beginning and middle parts of Rodrigo y Gabriela's set were more interesting than the acoustic guitar hero antics of the final ten minutes with Al Dimeola. But, even I had to admit I had just seen probably three of the best acoustic guitar players in the world give a lesson in how to blow minds with only three people, six hands and six strings.
Overall, it was a fantastic show, one that made the blandness of Xavier Rudd's opening set, as well as the ten minute political rant from de la Rocha completely forgivable.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: No bias to speak of. I came into tonight's show a blank slate with no preconceived notions of what to expect musically. Random Detail: A tallboy can of beer was $7, which meant it was really $8 once you tipped the nice concession lady dragging her heavy cooler of beers up and down the hundred something stairs of Red Rocks. By The Way: The deceptively simple stage layout put the focus squarely on the jaw dropping musicianship on display.