Rodrigo y Gabriela Set the Greek on Fire

Latin guitar duo enchants its Berkeley audience with a fast, smokin' performance.

Gabriela Quintero, of the musical duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, was strumming so hard during their show at the Greek Theatre on Saturday night that midway through a solo performance, her guitar began to smoke.

At least, that was the illusion that played out for a sea of fans watching a thick fog of dry ice blow across the video projection of her performance. Illusion aside, few audience members would have been surprised to see the guitar go up in flames given the intensity of her playing.

But while Quintero’s tiny hands moved across the strings at hummingbird speed, her face remained a portrait of calm — mouth shut, eyes fixed steadily on the instrument cradled in her arms. When the solo was through, Quintero smiled and held up her arms. The half-bowl of the Greek — nearly filled to the brim — burst into roaring applause.

Openers Xavier Rudd & Izintaba had already warmed the audience pretty well, with a few tunes from the opposite end of the earth, otherwise known as Australia. Rudd — a multi-instrumentalist known primarily for his mastery of the didgeridoo — relinquished center stage to his percussionist and bassist on Saturday, and mostly sang and played slide on an acoustic guitar laid out across his lap. The trio played a range of eclectic songs, many of which sounded, with the help of the South African-inspired backups, a lot like songs out of Paul Simon‘s Graceland. When Rudd did finally put his mouth on the lip of his didgeridoo, the crowd squealed. As expected, the sound that came out was the kind of tonal, guttural howl that only such an instrument can emit.

Night set in and the soupy fog seemed to melt. Rudd and Izintaba took leave, and it was time for Rodrigo y Gabriela to set the stage on fire.

The two began Saturday’s set entwined, both bodies and guitars nearly kissing before they split apart and took to separate sides of the stage, playing the explosive song “Hanuman” to kick off the show. They kept up this chase throughout, coming together and then springing apart again like fickle lovers. Besides this courtship routine, the pair didn’t rely at all on fancy dance moves or theatrics to keep the crowd interested. They didn’t need to. It was enough just to watch the two musicians, jaw-dropped, as the fiery music flew off their fingertips.

Combining influences from folk, flamenco, metal, rock, and samba, Rodrigo and Gabriela make their sound difficult to pinpoint. It’s all instrumental, but not void of emotion. Hearing Rodrigo and Gabriela play their guitars is like listening to expert storytellers spin the yarn about harrowing tales of love found and lost, journeys to hell and back, and other epic adventures. The tales seep through in intricate melodies, fast-changing rhythms, and unpredictable dips and crescendos rather than through words or actions on stage. Metal heads and guitar geeks dig it, but so do soccer moms, apparently — and the eclectic crowd at Greek Theatre bore testament to this duo’s wide-ranging appeal. Theirs is the international language of “holy fucking talented musicians” that pretty much everyone can enjoy.

And the energy-filled show required no definition. The duo spent much of Saturday’s show hopping around stage, smiling and running in place, or bracing themselves with bended knees as though the weight of their own playing required extra support. Sometimes they eyed each other or the audience, but mostly both musicians focused intently on their instruments — unless Rodrigo Sánchez was encouraging crowd members to clap along with the frantic pace of the music (if they could keep up) or Quintera was lifting an arm from her instrument to flash the sign of the horns.

The gesture might be a tribute to the duo’s metal roots — the pair met while playing together in a metal band in Mexico City. Other remnants of a metal-heavy past: their cover of Metallica‘s “Orion,” which they make no less forceful played on a couple of acoustics. The two occasionally enhanced the classical guitar sounds with various amplifying pedals, playing with a mix of rock and classical sounds in many of their songs.

As a duo, they found new, imaginative ways to use their instruments. Quintero occasionally takes on the role of a percussionist, tapping the resonant body of the guitar with her knuckles for more subtle rhythms and slapping it for the harder ones, while Sánchez expertly picks out the melody, often returning to a few familiar riffs again and again throughout the set that the audience can recognize and cling to like a boat in a storm clings to its anchor.

Much of the music they performed on Saturday was from their latest album, 11:11, with a few older tunes thrown in the mix. Violinist L. Shankar and guitarist Al Di Meola joined Rodrigo and Gabriela on stage, and when the trio of guitarists finally got down to business, the results were exactly what one might expect from three virtuosos: pretty dang beautiful. At the end of the show, crowds hung around the stage chanting for more long after Rodrigo y Gabriela had played their last number and left.


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