Album Review and Concert Preview: Rodrigo y Gabriela and C.U.B.A.’s “Area 52″ at Chicago Theatre on April 12th

Rodrigo y Gabriela burst onto the consciousness of the live music world in 2006 with their groundbreaking self-titled album Rodrigo y Gabriela. The reptile on the cover of the album could only hope to be as menacing as the music held within. Sure, this planet has seen quite a few guitar duos, but up until that point there was nothing like the raw fury of Rodrigo y Gabriela. And frankly, there is still nothing that quite hits the level of lightning fast virtuosity that they’ve achieved.

So it came as quite a revelation when it was revealed that the duo had shaken things up and gotten together with a full, 13-piece Cuban orchestra to record Area 52, a concept album if there ever was one. And, simply put, this album is a stroke of pure brilliance that’s rare is the world of music. As an album reviewer, I don’t like to assign stars or a number rating to albums because I hate the inevitable cross-album comparison of scores. But in the case of Area 52, this is one album where I feel comfortable assigning it a 10/10, or 5 stars, or two thumbs up, or whatever not-so-clever rating indicates an utterly perfect score. This album does no wrong; it is an absolute masterpiece.

The most striking part about the album is that it’s all familiar material (all nine tracks appeared on either Rodrigo y Gabriela or 11:11) but it’s all re-organized, re-composed, re-mixed, and completely re-invented. If the original versions had “power,” “teeth,” or “grit,” the new versions all have “flair,” “color,” or “grace.” Take the opening track, “Santo Domingo” for example, which came in the middle of 11:11, but was given the opening position on Area 52 due to its brand new opening composition. Where the now stripped down, duo version of the song is almost haunting, the new version’s horns cheers the song up, the string section lends a sensations of weightlessness, and the addition of piano adds a fresh danceability. Whereas the old version might just make you wanna beat hooves around a primal bonfire, the new version invokes imagery of a high class soiree, with people dressed to the nines performing highly choreographed latin ballroom dancing. The way this song is completely transformed and filled out in every sliver of the sound spectrum carries across the board for each track. It’s like each song’s original version is a rough charcoal sketch, full of raw emotion, but on Area 52 each of those black and white sketches has been painted over in full color, with every subtle charcoal line illuminated by the flourish of a brightly colored paintbrush.

There is really no amount of praise that could be superlative in the case of Area 52. It’s without question in the lead for album of 2012 (on my personal list) and I’d be shocked of this doesn’t pick up steam again during the next Grammy cycle. But it’s picking up some steam in Chicago this week thanks to Jam Productions bringing them to the Chicago Theatre for a one night only performance. The full C.U.B.A. outfit will be joining Rodrigo y Gabriela on stage and the early reports are that this show is as incredible as the album suggests. They’ve made the late nite talk show circuit to show off their new project, in addition to selling out every stop of their North American tour thus far. Tickets to the show at Chicago Theatre sold out in a matter of days after being released, so you can understand the gravity behind a show like this. If you got a ticket to see this, you are truly lucky. This will undoubtedly be a highlight concert of the entire year in Chicago: shows like this are what makes the live music scene in Chicago so special.

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Jeremy Frazier is the editor-in-chief of Soundfuse.