“Well you know, we did this to fuck our label” bantered Rodrigo, leaning out over the crowd, apparently jokingly. “But, as the project grew, we decided we wanted to take it on tour.”
The project Rodrigo of guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriella is talking about is new album Area 52, produced in conjunction with Cuban music collective C.U.B.A to give it that big band sound. This is a fine, creative idea for a studio album, but it destroys almost everything that makes Rodrigo y Gabriella an extraordinary live couple. Sad to say, tonight’s show is a loud and slightly hollow experience.
From the off, the show seems ill-thought out; rather than start in their normal style with some acoustic heavy metal to get the crowd going, they leap straight into a few big band numbers. The poor sound balance is immediately apparent – the brass section are far louder than anyone else, particularly the twin guitars, thus blasting away any intricate subtleties in a fanfare of horns. This carries on for 45 minutes or so, the crowd becoming more and more restless, before a 20 minute surge of acoustic material brings them back to life. This is then sandwiched between some more Cuban material, before an encore of even more Cuban re-interpretations (and an inexplicable bass solo).
What was offered was saturated and deafeningly underwhelming; the intricacy and intimacy of the guitars, the awe-inspiring company of talented musicians, these little things which makes Rodrigo y Gabriella such fascinating viewing were mercilessly shoehorned by the relentless noise. Little coherency was apparent in the set, let alone an explanation from the vocal-shy entertainers; song names might of helped in discerning each brass blast from the next. It wasn’t awful, but that certainly doesn’t excuse the puzzling, ill-fitting dullness of it all.
If, for example, the Cuban songs were sandwiched between the more rounded, well thought out acoustic sections, then it might have worked. If, instead of marketing it as a Rodrigo y Gabriella gig, it was presented as ‘Rodrigo y Gabriella y Friends’ in a seated concert setting, that would have worked. If the concert happened a month earlier, tying in with Celtic Connections as a World Music piece with a subsequent concert tour, that would have definitely worked. Instead, what we’re given is a half-way house, an enviable experiment that just does not work in a live-gig setting, which at nearly two hours was far too long, with many of the sold-out audience not bothering to wait for the traditional will-they-won’t-they encore tease and instead making for the Glasgow night.
It wasn’t all bad though. The axe-massaging duo are still extraordinary and mesmerising talents, their sheer skill enough to carry most efforts. When acoustically focused, Rodrigo’s melodies dancing with the slap-rhythms of Gabriella, the results testify to two of the most outstanding musicians in world music. This intricacy, immediacy and humility of tune, harnessed by the tight connection between audience and musician, both stripped down to the bare essentials of rhythm and soul, is what makes the band essential listening. Remove this, and you have nothing; add to it and you have too much. The C.U.B.A experiment, fine in a studio with take-after-take refinement, restricts and over-complicates the experience; extra noise and rhythms saturate the majestic simplicity, and the lack of focus removes the intimacy of two people, two guitars and an enraptured audience. In effect, what you are getting is the Rodrigo y Gabriella name, but not the soul or the performance. This is not Rodrigo y Gabriella, but rather a hollow shell with no real identity, and for people of such raw talent, that’s a waste.