Rodrigo in foreground, Gabriela in background

Rodrigo on lead, Gabriela on rhythm

I don’t know what I was expecting, really. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the mental image I had of a crowd of metalheads awkwardly bobbing their heads to horn-laden salsa beats. So it’s no understatement when I say that my first reaction to the inside of the Tabernacle Saturday night was one of bewildered confusion.

The Tabernacle is a venerable Atlanta institution and the most unique local venue. Formerly a church (and a rather grand one at that!), it now hosts some of the best entertainment acts to visit our fair city. I’ve always loved its cavernous interior, creaky stairwells, and little idiosyncratic touches like a fancy-schmancy crystal chandelier and the full wall of original organ pipes that now serves as a backdrop for the main stage. It seems that someone with real business savvy (LiveNation?) has sunk their meat hooks into the venue, as I noticed some spiffy decor upgrades and improved signage. Of course, I guess they’ve gotta pay for all this stuff somehow, which is why they’re now scalping the ever-loving crap out of concertgoers, who like me, foolishly decide to indulge in refreshments during the show. I mean, where else in this town can you get a 24oz PBR for $9??? Nothing spells “classy” like overpriced cheap beer!

Once I’ve recovered from the heart attack brought on by scandalously high booze prices, I regain my composure and take a gander at the crowd. Scads of hipster college kids (no doubt with a large Latin American Studies contingent) congregate in buzzy clusters, eagerly chattering amongst themselves, while fiddling with their shiny smartphones and other assorted high-tech devices. A cougar in denim capris and 4” heels giggles sweet nothings into the ear of some clean-cut dude in a contractor belt and a Harley Davidson t-shirt. Two goofy longhaired metalhead boyfriends holding hands push past me to get a better spot. What the hell kind of parallel universe am I in right now?!? What is the meaning of this???

As much as I love and respect Rodridgo y Gabriela’s work and the Cuban music traditions individually, I can honestly say that I’m coming into this thing with a brooding sense of skepticism. I’m not so sure how these sounds are going to work together. I don’t know if I can take two hours’ worth of salsa fantastico, and I’m harboring a niggling fear that R&G’s unique acoustic guitar stylings will be drowned out by tacky brass sections, overzealous maracas, annoying conga drums, and some guy yelling party catchphrases at the crowd en Español.

I first became aware of Rodrigo y Gabriela by way of their infectious flamenco-inspired interpretations of some of my favorite metal and hard rock songs. One need only listen to their cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” or their live version of Metallica’s “One” to get a grasp of how phenomenally talented they are. What’s more, the recent album releases that put them on the musical map — “Rodrigo y Gabriela” (2006) and “11:11” (2009) — showcase some of the finest and most innovative guitar playing of our lifetime.

“Area 52” (2011) is their latest release and is a reworking of nine of their previous songs, featuring the stylings of a 13-piece Cuban band known simply as C.U.B.A. It was recorded in Havana, Cuba a few years ago — the first time R&G have recorded with a backing band. While its artistic merits are unassailable, the album has received mixed reviews, some of these coming from diehard fans who think the band only distracts from the purity of R&G by themselves. Hence my trepidation.

The opening act is literally just a kid and his guitar. 19-year-old Denver-born singer/songwriter/guitar prodigy Zach Heckendorf unassumingly takes the stage, and proceeds to kick our asses 12 days past Sunday with his own brand of twangy folksy shredding. Sounding like a young Dave Matthews, with occasional glimpses of John Mayer and Jack Johnson, this kid really knows his way around an acoustic guitar. He has enormous potential and is definitely worth following in the future.

Once Heckendorf leaves the stage, we’re treated to an extended intermission, made bearable only by the novelty of watching a left-handed roadie tune up the smorgasbord of guitars upside down. Finally, the lights go down, and the crowd goes wild. Time for the main event!

Six core members of C.U.B.A. filter onto the stage one by one and take their places. Maestro Alex Wilson (a London-based jazz pianist who apparently orchestrated this whole collaboration) positions himself behind two modest synthesizers. The hulking beast of a drummer settles down behind the drum set (whatwhatwhat??? Won’t Gabriela’s trademark percussive playing be enough?!). Then there’s a bassist, and — gasp! — another guitarist?? I don’t know about this, “mane”…

Shadowy C.U.B.A. members with horns

The mystery of the horn section...

I’ve fully prepared myself for the very strong possibility that a snappily dressed fedora-wearing horn section will rise up out of the backseat of a souped-up bubblegum pink 1957 Thunderbird convertible driving onto the stage…but no such luck. Instead, two down-to-earth chaps take their places, and proceed to skillfully multitask on an array of instruments throughout the show (baritone sax, trumpet, flute, hand percussion, and — hey, is that a flugelhorn??? [yes, it is, actually]).

Finally Rodrigo and Gabriela join the stage. Quick background: Rodrigo Sanchez (lead guitar) and Gabriela Quintero (rhythm guitar) first played together in a thrash metal band in Mexico City. As the band went its separate ways, R&G (who didn’t speak a word of English) decided to move together to Ireland, which they had heard was friendly to street musicians. After spending nearly a decade there, busking and networking with local musicians and eventually playing pubs and festivals, they finally broke onto the world stage and started getting the widespread recognition and appreciation they deserve. Together they play what can only be described as frantically driven instrumental acoustic guitar jams — think a head banging flamenco dancer on crack. The metal influences are obviously there, but so are plenty of other ones, from traditional Latin music to jazz and folk.

Rodrigo and two members of C.U.B.A.

Rodrigo plugs in for a few songs

After a few songs, Rodrigo trades his electric guitar for his trademark acoustic, and we’re off! By this time, it’s becoming clear (to me, at least) that Gabriela is the real star here. Rodrigo’s impeccable staccato picking is certainly nothing to sneeze at. But this duo gets its unique sound from the magic of Gabriela’s percussive playing, and her strumming blur of a hand as she intermittently thumps out rhythms on the body of her guitar. Her stage presence is infectious; it’s clear she’s having a great time up there, and you can’t help but have a good time watching and listening to this ingenue play her brains out.

Gabriela's percussive style of guitar playing

Gabriela doing what she does best

Despite the admittedly badass playing from R&G, some of these songs are a tad too “adult contemporary” for my taste. Just as I feared, I’m musically transported on more than one occasion to the glitzy nightclubs and casinos of 1950s Havana. (Maybe this has more to do with my own limited awareness than anything else.) The presence of a full percussion section would sound out of place to anybody who’s used to hearing the typically sparse rhythms that R&G tap out on their hollow-bodied guitars. And (not surprisingly) at times, the C.U.B.A.’s salsa-riffic explosion totally overwhelms R&G, leaving them clinging to an inner tube and drifting on the horizon of the music.

This band is not without its merits, however. I wasn’t able to find much info on C.U.B.A., so unfortunately I can’t bore you here with their background story. Suffice it to say, these are some of the most talented musicians I’ve seen on stage in a long time, and their knack for supporting two virtuosos is undeniable. The Latin soundscapes provide an original backdrop for some familiar songs, and the band’s masterful playing tends to complement, rather than suffocate, the outstanding guitar work from Rod and Gab. Yes, folks, this is what happens when you adequately fund the arts!

C.U.B.A. members on horns & percussion

C.U.B.A.'s horn section shakes things up

The insanely skilled superstar bassist Alfredo Hechavarria, no doubt in the zone with a stick of incense burning at the foot of his mic stand, starts off one of the songs with some jaw-dropping beatboxing, following it up with a sexy creeping bass line a la “Venus.” The baritone sax and flugelhorn manage to sound like a full section of sassy, brassy horns. And we’re dazzled by the jazzy chops of Wilson on keys, who particularly shines later on in the show with a mesmerizing, spirited solo, which he bangs out with ferocious sincerity.

The Cuban-led journey continues with bold, punchy horn phrasing, punctuated by flashing colored lights, leading me to rhapsodize about countless 4AM Taco Cabana runs. But I’m quickly brought back from my reverie to find Rodrigo manhandling his guitar, with an especially frenzied solo. Occasionally, the pauses between songs are peppered with endearing banter from Rodrigo (who has an odd Mexican-Irish accent) and Gabriela, who tell us about the songs and entreats us to rock out, at one point urging us, “You are welcome to move like crazy things.” And move like crazy things we shall!

C.U.B.A. eventually takes a break, leaving Rodrigo and Gabriela to their own devices on stage. Now the real mind-blowing can begin! He’s all cool intensity and effortless shredding while she’s pure exuberance, jumping up and down like a pixie and laughing, while stunning us with her awesome headbanging flamenco style. They play off one another, and then take turns soloing, each song sounding more impressive than the last.

Rodrigo plays a solo

Rodrigo's flawless shredding in action

Gabriela's unique percussive style

Gabriela's unique percussive style

Rodrigo’s masterful playing verges on perfection. The precision of his picking is almost beyond comprehension. Gabriela plays like a woman possessed, with her head bent over her guitar, stringy black hair hanging in her face like some kind of yūrei (vengeful female ghost) in a J-horror flick. She pounds furiously on the front of her guitar, and at one point I find myself wondering how many guitars she’s broken this way. In fact, the duo apparently had to go on hiatus from touring due to stress injuries she sustained from her intense playing. And that, my friends, is punk-effin’-rock.

C.U.B.A. rejoins the stage, and we’re fast and furious with the Cubanismo again. Loping interludes with conventional Latin rhythms get spiced up with more vocal onomatopoeia from the Hechavarria, cymbal-crashing flourishes, floaty otherworldly chanting, and ostentatious horns that add punch without being intrusive. We are gifted with a psychedelic Santana-esque tune, featuring a stint on the slide guitar from Rodrigo, and the follow-up song features a spontaneous call-and-response section between him and Wilson. The final song is over too soon, but after cheering our guts out, the audience is vindicated with a two-song encore.

The only thing that detracted from the sheer enjoyment of this show was the mindbendingly inconsiderate, constantly jabbering crowd. Between their incessant yakking and the unquenchable urge to record every second of their experience on their iDevices (nevermind that they were blocking the view of everybody behind them), these had to be some of the rudest concertgoers I’ve ever been forced to endure. They wouldn’t even shut up during respective solo performances from Rodrigo and Gabriela that were so stunningly brilliant that they had me gobsmacked and covered in goosebumps. I get the feeling that lots of bros (who might’ve been legit R&G fans) brought along dates who were clearly uninterested in this “boring music” and preferred to text compulsively, make banal phone calls, and hang on their guys while whining about OMG when are we gonna goooooo.  Why anybody would want to pay $47 to stand around talking loudly with their back to the stage is beyond me. To be fair, there were plenty of engaged, enthusiastic folks in the crowd who fully enjoyed themselves and the music (myself included).

If you missed Rodrigo y Gabriela with C.U.B.A. on the Atlanta stop of their 2012 tour, or if (like me) you wish you could see them again with a more respectful crowd, take solace in the knowledge that they will be playing Bonnaroo on June 8. You can also catch them on the three final stops of the Area 52 tour: Miami (5/1), Jazz Fest in New Orleans (5/4), and Austin (5/5).