I saw Rodrigo Y Gabriela by accident two summers ago. They were playing in Central Park for a free event called SummerStage. The crowd had been packed into an area roughly the size of a large basketball court. Add the heat of August to that scenario and you began to see why the event seemed to be totally funded by $4 drinks.

Anyway, there were about 4 or 5 bands that were supposed to be playing that day, with a (lousy) DJ keeping things funky fresh between each group of obscure unknowns. My friends and I had just finished watching a group that I think was called "Vietnam" that had what was possibly the largest concentration of facial hair I have ever seen in a single musical act. Probably even several acts. We're talking four guys with three foot long bushes growing from their faces. Bird nest material. Listening to their music I realized this was likely an attempt to distract listeners from their complete lack of any talent whatsoever. Rest assured, no one was fooled.

By the time they left the stage, my friends and I were seriously considering leaving. We had just begun to pack when the two plastic folding chairs were brought out before the crowd to thunderous applause. Slightly perplexed by the sudden accolades for synthetic furniture, we delayed our departure temporarily. When two Mexicans, one man and one woman, came out bearing acoustic guitars we were even more bewildered. I was generally disdainful of acoustic work at the time, preferring the sensation of roaring power in my chest I felt at a good rock concert to the hippy-dippy emotional garbage that I perceived "unplugged" as being. My expectations, as I later admitted, were low. But the volatile reaction they generated in the crowd kept me watching.

What I didn't realize yet was that I was watching a pair of guitar virtuosos.

They started off with "Tamacun", and the first inklings of their talent became evident. The song was aggressive, attention grabbing, and had a narrative to it, despite the fact that neither of the guitarists sung. Singing, I now realize, would have detracted from the music.

The followed "Tamacun" with covers of a few Metallica songs and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven", merging some of them into larger medleys. One began to wonder how their fingers survived this kind of abuse on a day to day basis. I noticed that, despite being armed only with guitars, they still managed to play the percussion elements of each song as well. They accomplished this by actually hitting their guitars with their hands between notes. In other words, they were not merely a two man band, but a single instrument band as well, using the guitar to play the role of every other instrument.

Between songs the duo spoke to the increasingly raucous crowd (which had begun to turn into something resembling more of a joyous mob smelling of beer and cigarettes) about their experience travelling to the USA and their run-in with the Department of Homeland Security, which had detained them under suspicion of being illegal immigrants (flying here not from their native Mexico, mind you, but Ireland, which is where they currently reside). This culminated in Gabriela rather vigorously flipping off immigration services and declaring "FUCK the Department of Homeland Security!" in her heavy Mexican accent to the cheers of a crowd of white New Yorkers.

At that point, I was satisfied. They'd gone above and beyond my expectations, bought a dead crowd to life, and changed my feelings about acoustic music forever. But no. It couldn't stop there.

They started to play "Diablo Rojo" as their closer. I had thought they were fast before. I had thought they were already pushing the limits for the maximum possible speed human fingers could move at without starting to burn up from air friction. About two minutes in, they proved me completely wrong. After a few seconds of deceptive pause, they broke into some of the finest guitar playing I've ever heard. No, that's not strictly true. It was not guitar play. It was guitar work. These were not musicians but craftsmen, passionately dedicated to what they did.

I left the park in a state of mild shock. When I got home I ranted wildly to my family about "the band who played metal on acoustic guitars" and how brilliant they were. I was summarily dismissed to my room to calm down and meditate on the experience. For the next few days I tried to push the group on other friends, extolling their virtues. Most of them asked where my sudden interest in a mariachi cover band had come from. This misunderstanding made me rather depressed, to say the least.

That aside, I look forward to seeing them again if I can this year, in September. I would advise that you too try to see at least one of their live concerts. If you can't manage that, buy their CD or at least have a sampling of what they sound like here. I recommend starting with the "Diablo Rojo" video on the left and working your way down from there.

Before I go, a few fun facts:

  • Rodrigo and Gabriela first met each other in a thrash metal band in Mexico called "Tierra Acida". The left Mexico when it became apparent that the long-running traditions of the country weren't ready to make room for their bad-ass metal skills.
  • Shortly after arriving in Ireland the duo went completely broke, spending all their money within a single week. To survive they had to play in traditional Irish pubs (which no doubt improved their ability to work a crowd).
  • Possibly as a result of all that hard work, their self-titled album went directly to #1 on the Irish charts, beating out Johnny Cash and the up-and-coming Arctic Monkeys. While I'm not entirely sure, I'm pretty positive they were the first Mexicans to top Irish charts.
  • Rodrigo y Gabriela use a somewhat modified style of guitar playing called flamenco which is indeed related to the flamenco style of dance. The rapid, intricate nature of flamenco guitar play was a natural fit for their metal influences. On a DVD of their live performances, they made the mistake of including a quick to tutorial of how to play like them. Within days, Youtube was flooded with wannabes.
  • They are not, in any way whatsoever, a mariachi band.

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