REVIEW: Rage Against The Machine’s Zach De La Rocha Joins Rodrigo y Gabriela Onstage At Red Rocks, Blows Minds
Rodrigo y Gabriela with special guests Xavier Rudd
Friday August 20th
Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, Colorado
I’ll admit, I was a little late to the party when it came to getting hip to the acoustic guitar badassery of Rodrigo y Gabriela. They first crossed my radar about two summers ago when I saw a Youtube clip of the duo from Mexico City by way of Ireland performing their version of the thrash metal classic Orion, by Metallica.
The ride up to Red Rocks driving up and out of the sweltering afternoon Denver heat had my brother and I engaged in a philosophical conversations about how exactly someone could describe Rodrigo y Gabriela’s music to a neophyte. The fifteen minute drive simply didn’t allow us enough time to come to a consensus. Rolling up to ticket will call at about 7:45pm showed a crowd that was showing up much later than what you’d normally see at a summer concert at Red Rocks. Even though it was a Friday evening, there wasn’t much tailgate partying going on anywhere. Not that kind of crowd I guess.
Half the fun of going to a concert is anticipating what kinds of people are going to show up. The other half is predicting if the band will sound as good live as they sound on your stereo speakers. Besides our previous conversation to categorize what genre you could pigeonhole Rodrigo y Gabriela’s music on the drive to the show, my brother and I were now actively engaged in a demographic prediction of what the crowd would look like. My brother predicted an older crowd, I predicted a younger college kid and music nerd type crowd. We were both right. People from all walks of life from young dread headed hippies to middle aged stockbroker types with everything in between were in attendance. I made a mental note that this was probably the most diverse crowd of people I’d shared a Red Rocks show with.
By the time we took our seats, opener act Xavier Rudd and his band were in the middle of their third song. Best known for incorporating the guttural sounds of an aboriginal didgeridoo and loose funked-out acoustic guitar strumming, Xavier Rudd has been a well known rising star in the tie-dyed jamband world for quite a few summers now. To me personally, Xavier Rudd’s opening set represented all that’s bad about jamband music: endlessly droning songs, too many instrumental solos, and a lack of overall variety. The gimmick of an australian tree root pipe that makes animal noises is just not enough for me. I didn’t get it.The lower half of the Red Rocks crowd were spinning like fireflies in the moonlight though so I guess at least some people were dialed into what Xavier Rudd was doing. I was pretty ready for the opener to wrap it up and exit stage left so the end of their set was a welcome event for me. But make up your own mind – below is a fan created Youtube video of one of Xavier’s songs:
Between the end of Xavier Rudd and the main event, I had a chance to make small talk with our neighbors that yielded some pretty memorable conversations. A young couple from Washington DC told me this was their 3rd Rod and Gab show this summer. Rod and Gab? How quaint. Turns out Rodrigo y Gabriela have earned an americanized nickname from their fans.
As the lights went down and our attention turned towards the stage, the first item apparent was the stage layout, or lack thereof. Instead of drumsets on risers huddling beneath massive scaffoldings of lights and lasers, Rodrigo y Gabiela’s stage consisted of five road gear cases plopped across the stage in a semi-circle and a stage banner backdrop that resembled a gigantic gash from a tiger’s claws. There were also some old school spotlights scattered here and there. I guess I expected more but, the simplicity of the stage layout lent anticipation for how I hoped their music would sound.
When the house lights finally dimmed and the background music stopped, Rodrigo y Gabriela walked out from the darkness armed only with matching acoustic guitars, each dressed modestly in short sleeve shirts and jeans. The crowd erupted into hoots and hollers while the duo sat on the small road cases on the stage sitting opposite from each other. In short order, the songs increased in technicality with sounds I didn’t know were possible from acoustic guitars suddenly filling the stage from all sides. I learned quickly by watching them that simple hand gestures like slapping, tapping, and rubbing created some pretty far out sounds. Of course every new song played delivered even more sonic surprises that further melted my brain. How in the world did these two learn to play guitar like that? To say it was a mind blowing display of musical creativity and sheer, raw talent in action would be the understatement of the year. Once the music started, I never once noticed the humble stage decor or lack of flashing lights and lasers.
Of course, like any good show stopping performance, the duo held back a few surprises till the very end. In succession one by one, Rodrigo y Gabriela began introducing their three special guests starting with fusion jazz violinist superstar Shenkar who brought an expansive lushness with a touch of creepiness. Imagine eighties alternative goth rock band The Cure writing their own version of an instrumental movie soundtrack to an Indiana Jones adventure movie and you might get a mental image of what those couple songs sounded like. It all sounded pretty cool but definitely different than what I normally stick in my eardrums.
After a few songs with Shenkar, Rodrigo grabbed the microphone and announced their second special guest was a well known musician from Los Angeles who wanted to say a few words first. I don’t think really anyone in the crowd knew what was coming next. From the back of the stage where violinist Shenkar exited moments before strode the unmistakable profile of Rage Against The Machine’s frontman Zach De La Rocha. What? Seriously? Hell yes.
While Rod and Gab were riffing background guitar noise, Zach began the longest political rant I think I’ve heard in recent memory. I’m all about free speech and hey, it’s Zach De La Rocha from Rage but honestly, his long winded political rant with acoustic guitar backdrop turned me off like a lightswitch. I mean, get the fact that Rodrigo y Gabriela are from Mexico. I get the fact that Zach De La Rocha is all about boycotting Arizona for their anti illegal immigration laws, I get it, I get, I get it.
I think it was safe to say everyone in the crowd got the gist of what Zach was saying after the first 2 minutes so why on earth did we need to be subjected to what seemed like an eternity of his preaching? Thankfully, our collective patience of listening to Zach’s empassioned political speech on unity and activism was rewarded by a pretty smoking version of Rage Against The Machine’s classic rap rock anthem Bomb Track (see another fan created Youtube clip below – PS, isn’t Youtube awesome?) that simultaneously melted faces and got every last acoustic music snob sitting down up on their feet jumping around like it was 1996 all over again. Good times.
Personally I thought Rod and Gab had done more to convince people of their stance on immigration by letting their actions speak louder than the words of Rage Against The Machine’s stridently liberal activist front man. Two special guests down and one left to unveil, I think the entire crowd was all wondering exactly the same thing: how do you top Zach De La Rocha doing Rage songs?
Rodrigo again took the mic and announced their final special guest was someone who inspired them both to study the acoustic guitar and also that they were relinquishing the stage for a few minutes. Rodrigo explained eloquently:
“We’re gonna let him play by himself because frankly, we’d probably fuck up if we tried playing with him.”
With that humble nod to someone they looked up to spoken out loud, Rodrigo called for Al Dimeola, the undisputed world heavyweight champion of acoustic guitar, to take the stage. There was more than a few music nerds in the crowd who obviously knew who Al Dimeola was because the excited hushed chattering of husbands and boyfriends telling their better halfs about the musical credentials of the guitar slinger on stage could be heard throughout the crowd. After a few minutes of technically the most insane and ridiculous acoustic guitar playing I’ve ever witnessed in my life, Rodrigo and Gabriela joined Dimeola onstage to close out the night on the final couple songs.
The beginning and middle parts of Rodrigo y Gabriela’s set were more interesting than the acoustic guitar hero antics of the final ten minutes with Al Dimeola. But, even I had to admit I had just seen probably three of the best acoustic guitar players in the world give a lesson in how to blow minds with only two hands and six strings each.
Overall, what a fantastic show. I can forgive the blandness of Xavier Rudd’s opener set and the ten minute political rant from Zach De La Rocha due to the utterly captivating acoustic guitar mastery on display the rest of the evening.