The Albert Hall, Manchester
In a harder, better, faster, stronger world punctuated by synthetic musical bleeps and bloops, the acoustic guitar seems to have lost its cool. Down on the Delta in the mid-1930s as legend would have it, a young Robert Johnson was meandering along a crossroads at midnight when he bumped into none other than the devil himself. The devil, enjoying a bit of the old heavy rock stuff, took the guitar from him, finely tuned it, played a few ditties and handed it back to young Rob who instantaneously became a blues master and the great great great great grandaddy of rock n roll.
Nowadays, the acoustic guitar conjures up images of emotionally pained solo artists primarily singing as though they have a mouthful of hot chips. If I said to you, ‘duelling acoustic flamenco guitars’ perhaps the imagery which springs to mind is a warm summer’s night in the Costa del Generic, listening to Pedro and Benito sweat profusely over their own instrumental interpretation of the works of Michael Bolton. Rodrigo y Gabriela are here to destroy this perception.
Tonight we are nestled in the beautiful stained-glass womb of the Albert Hall in Manchester, a painstakingly restored former Methodist Chapel now home to a very different type of congregation indeed (think FAC51:The Hacienda and The Manic Street Preachers). Unlike your standard sticky floor gig, this event feels more highbrow and mature – these are serious musical connoisseurs and I begin to seriously regret stocking up on pre-gig drinks at the train station bar.
Notwithstanding the sheer numbers who have turned out in force to mark their tenth anniversary re-release of the eponymous ‘Rodrigo y Gabriela’ album produced by John Leckie (Radiohead, The Stone Roses), the gig still retains a sense of intimacy.
In case you’ve forgotten who they are, let me remind you. They’ve played for Barack Obama at The White House, had their song ‘Tamacun’ featured in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, headlined a Glastonbury stage in 2010, and of course famously beat the Arctic Monkeys and Johnny Cash to the number one spot in the Irish Album Charts in 2006.
Hailing from Mexico City, these former childhood sweethearts combine their passion for flamenco and jazz with heavier rock and metal influences such as Led Zeppelin and Metallica. This unusual fusion stirs something oddly primal within the soul. The familiarity of modern classics as told through pounding acoustic guitars really shows just how exceptionally gifted they are. There is no need for fancy amps, pedals, or studio-effects – they simply slay through their set with raw gusto as an ecstatic audience laps it up.
Although no longer a couple, Rodrigo (Sanchez) and Gabriela (Quintero) still possess an undeniable chemistry which feels palpable at times. Unlike the way The White Stripes cashed in on the, ‘are they, aren’t they?’ backstory, Rod and Gab have never shied away from the fact that that they were together but now function far better as musical partners.
However, this was not the show the pair had in mind when taking it on the road. Poor Gab had managed to break her foot whilst out running only a few days earlier and conducted her entire proceedings from an uncomfortable-looking wheelchair with left leg akimbo. At times, she appeared to be in some degree of pain yet this did not seem to deter her as she played on allowing Rod to play up to centre-stage. They breezed through a set of their own compositions (notably Diablo Rojo and Savitri) mixed in with well-known rock classics such as ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘Killing in the Name Of’ and ‘Orion.’ There was even a poignant tip of the cap to the late Chris Cornell as they played ‘Like a Stone.’ Although they are busy working on a new album of material (we were even granted sneaky peaks of some unnamed tracks they’re working on…) it is clear that this tour provides them with a well-deserved trip down memory lane. It’s hard to accept that back in 1999 these two were struggling musicians playing on the streets of Dublin which they then made home for the next eight years. This is in stark contrast to last year’s gruelling touring schedule of 25 countries; whilst this exhaustive stint has taken them across the US, Canada, France, Swizerland, Italy, Belgium, Viena, Zurich and London, with their final stop being this cosy little chapel in Manchester.
One of the fascinating observations is just how humbled they seem by the experience. There is no space on the stage for arrogance, bravado or ego, and at times both seem lost in transcendental meditations. There is nothing ostentatious about this performance, even the backdrop is a simply-lit stage featuring the occasional projected close up. Gabriela’s serene expression gives way to a look of pure ecstasy as she throws back her head in wild abandonment, as Rodrigo hunches over his axe, holding it tightly and revealing a sweaty and contorted facial expression. Although this pair’s romantic liaison has ended, what we appear to be left with is a pure and deep intimacy which borders on telepathy and fizzing sexual chemistry.
By the end of the night, the crowd has shaken off its air of pretention and indulges itself in rapturous applause. People are leaning over the front barrier and reaching out their clammy hands. They get it now.