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WORLD MUSIC REVIEW

With fast picks and gimmicks

Guitar act Rodrigo y Gabriela hides flaws with flash.

June 28, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

RODRIGO Sanchez, half of the Mexican guitar act of Rodrigo y Gabriela, occasionally sipped from a bottle of beer during a crowd-pleasing, cliche-riddled performance Tuesday at the Ford Amphitheatre. Just when you thought the act had run out of gimmicks, Rodrigo used the bottle to play a sort of woozy slide guitar on their instrumental version of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here."

Amazingly, the guitar did sound drunk. The capacity crowd cheered the cheap stunt, as Rodrigo knew it would.

If this Dublin-based duo were not the latest anointed darlings of the world music circuit, more sober minds might think they were watching a reality show rip-off called "Mexico Has Talent."

Rodrigo y Gabriela has taken the boomerang road to popularity. The two started out playing in a heavy-metal band in Mexico City but got nowhere as roqueros and headed to Europe as vagabonds. Somewhere along the line, they developed a hybrid style on acoustic guitars that's part Gipsy Kings, Metallica and Los Indios Tabajaras. The novelty caught on, and their album is now No. 47 on Amazon.com's list of bestsellers, the only Latino-related work to make the Web retailer's Top 100.

Rodrigo and Gabriela insist that they don't play flamenco, a disclaimer most appreciated by flamenco fans. But they borrow enough of the genre's touches to confuse the uninformed.

Their bread-and-butter technique is taken from the rumba catalana and known descriptively as el ventilador, or the fan, which uses the guitar as a percussion instrument by simultaneously strumming the strings in a fan-like flurry and tapping the soundboard with fingernails, palms and knuckles. It was once described by the late Gato Perez, an exponent of rumba catalana, as an "ingenious trick that's so easy to do."

Rodrigo y Gabriela's flashiness masks the shortcomings; generally, they play at three speeds -- fast, very fast and super fast. They proved how well that works at the Ford on Tuesday; the louder and faster the strumming, the bigger the cheers.

The evening's better moments came when the duo slowed down for a segment near the end of its 90-minute set. Rodrigo displayed more than his usual pedestrian picking on a sweeping number that included melodic snippets from Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" and Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez (though not the guitar concerto's challenging passages). For her part, Gabriela coaxed impressive percussive sounds from her guitar, at one point doing what substituted for a rock drum solo, complete with head-banging.

But was all that foul language really necessary? In talking to the audience throughout the evening, they both tossed off the F-word so casually you would think nobody had told them what it means. !Que majaderos!

The evening's only display of satisfying talent came in the opening act, featuring Brazil's CeU. You might recognize the Sao Paulo artist from your local Starbucks, which is selling her self-titled debut CD. Her rich, smoky and sultry voice goes perfectly with your best espresso.

She performed Tuesday with a pared-down band, just a fluid guitarist and a percussionist who amounted to a one-man rhythm section, even using his mouth to sound out beats. Dressed in a loose blue mini-skirt and gently swaying her hips, CeU enchanted with her voice that ranged from husky growls to pure highs, with bluesy edges and catty scatting.

She promised she'd be back later this year with her full, six-piece band. Make it a date.

agustin.gurza@latimes.com

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