I've been waiting literally decades to finally see the great maestro Paco de Lucia -- widely regarded as the best guitarist alive -- perform in concert. So it was fitting that of course I had to wait until the last night of the Savannah Music Festival to finally get my wish.
But the wait -- all of it -- was well worth it. In the case of lesser mortals than de Lucia, such a big buildup tends to lead to disappointment, but if anything his show surpassed even my own fevered expectations.
Few other forms of music have such a wide disparity between live performance and the recorded version than Flamenco. It's almost impossible to grasp the music's sheer physical bravado, its swaggering menace, its complex, interlocking rhythms, and its highly theatrical showmanship unless you see it performed in real time.
The flip side of this is not everyone is ready for Flamenco when they see it and feel it up close. The earthiness and passion can be too much for those raised on more sedate musical traditions. (Indeed, the last Flamenco show the Music Festival brought to town saw people rudely walk out before intermission.)
I'm happy to report that de Lucia's concert was not only very well-attended -- not always a given for world music at the Music Festival -- but had an audience which for the most part not only knew what they were getting into but seemed to know and appreciate real genius when they saw it.
The concert opened with de Lucia taking the stage calmly, alone, sitting in his customary cross-legged position and playing an extended solo piece that showed off not only the full breadth of his stunning technique -- both on the fretboard and with his right hand -- but the depth of his sensitivity and passion for this most passionate of musical forms.
The aggressive but fluid nature of de Lucia's playing, as ahead of its time now as during his groundbreaking collaborations with jazz musicians back in the ‘70s, is defined by sinuous single-note picado runs snaking their way out of robustly rhythmic chords which are flicked out like so many switchblades in that iconic Flamenco right-hand style called rasgueado.
Now well into his 60s, De Lucia has lost nothing since his younger days. His technique is so precise, his practiced fingers so strong, that literally every note he played -- and he played many, many thousands during the course of the evening -- was crystal clear and fretted to perfection, not always the case with acoustic guitar solos even in expert hands.
An entire evening of just Paco would be more than enough, but he was soon joined by his band, which included a second guitarist, Antonio Sanchez (amazing in his own right), bassist Alain Perez, who several times played his five-string instrument in Flamenco style, keyboardist/harmonica player Antonio Serrano seated at de Lucia's immediate right, and percussionist Piranha, who expertly navigated the unorthodox time signatures typical of the genre (like South American soccer players, many Gypsy musicians just go by one name).
Seated with them were two singers, Duquende and David de Jacoba, who traded vocals in the signature husky, mournful microtones of Flamenco. Forget American Idol -- you haven't heard or seen a singer sell a song until you see a Flamenco singer do it. They are extremely passionate, almost as if they're having a heart attack onstage, and the effect is almost uncomfortably riveting.
However, for many in the audience who were less star-struck by Paco de Lucia than this reviewer, the surprise star of the show was the dancer, Farruco.
For the vast bulk of the show the diminutive Farruco sat shyly in a chair with the other musicians, providing hand clap percussion and occasionally some backing vocals. But twice during the evening, as the band was in an extended jam, he casually stood up, slowly walked to the small dance platform downstage, and began dancing, his small frame seeming to become twice as large.
The word machismo was essentially coined to describe what came next: A fierce display of hyper-masculine showmanship which garnered its own standing ovation.
Unlike tap dancers of the Fred Astaire/Savion Glover variety, Flamenco dancers don't flail their arms as counterweights. They are either held in close to the center of gravity or used to frame the dancer's body and express dramatic elements of the dance itself, much as a ballet dancer does (except muy mas macho).
Using the nailed heels of his leather boots like machine gun bullets, Farruco personified Flamenco's relentless, violent rhythms, combing amazing dexterity of the feet with an acrobat's verve, exactly mirroring the drama and intensity of the accompanying music.
It's a testament to de Lucia's own unsurpassed confident machismo that he was willing to share the stage so generously with these youthful performers, for whom playing with the Maestro is certainly the highlight of their young lives.