Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Paco Peña at Massey Hall. January 25, 2008. Brief review.

I saw one of the best concerts of my life when flamenco guitarist Paco Peña came to Massey Hall last Friday.

One of the most interesting things it did for me was to put into perspective the other flamenco performances that I've seen over the years:

  • 3 x Jesse Cook

  • 2 x Robert Michaels

  • 1 x Jorge Miguel

  • 1 x Johannes Linstead

And Paco Peña's performance was in a completely different strata above these four. Respect in the genre is such that I expect every one of the above would agree with me.

Paco Peña's style was very much traditional and perhaps closest to Jorge Miguel of the above, although the complexity of his arrangements and the eloquency of his skill was far beyond. The billing of Peña as one of the greatest flamenco guitarists in the world is justified, to the extent of my experience.

Although I've enjoyed each of the Jesse Cook shows I've been to, he's quite obviously "mainstreaming" the genre into the most catchy and energetic aspects. There's not much air or space and it always feels like he's trying hard not to lose your attention. It's an artform in itself that he should feel accomplished about, but it's not the same artform and it's not real flamenco.

Peña's concert was all about fundamentals and is what I have come to know as traditional flamenco. That may or may not be true, but it felt as though I was experiencing something genuine, rather than sugarcoated.

In comparison to Robert Michaels and Johannes Linstead... well, I don't think either of those two do what you could call flamenco. Jesse Cook's style could reasonably be considered nuevo flamenco (rumba flamenco, most of the time), but Michaels and Linstead do something completely different. It's more like adult contemporary instrumental, with flamenco influence.


There were at least four different flamenco dancers in this performance, as far as I could tell. Three of them were male, which was a "first" for me: I've seen flamenco dancers before, but they've always been female, even in multiples. I knew that male flamenco dancers were out there because you see them associated with the genre, and I briefly worked with someone male that was involved in flamenco dancing, but I'd never seen it myself. The men had far more stage time than the woman.

The dancing was very impressive. It was also obvious that this is yet another culture that, unlike our own, recognizes and respects the equal roles of women -- equal contribution, but in different ways. That much comes out in the performance somehow, as does a respect for all elements and aspects of life. I don't think I'm reading too much into it, either.

The dancing fluctuated between tighly-controlled synchronized movements and rather fluid, uncontrolled (almost Pentecostal) interpretive dance. It was an interesting combination, and I think Michael Jackson learned a thing or two from this genre when creating his own style.


Much of the music was accompanied by a male flamenco singer who did a very suitable job. This was also the first flamenco concert I've seen with a traditional flamenco singer: the others I've seen usually blend Western singers in with the flamenco, or they use a more contemporary Spanish singing style that they presumably feel won't be as harsh to adult contemporary ears.

One of the things I always noticed about Jesse Cook's concerts is that the stage performance was not as fluid as the recorded performance. It seemed a bit more stilted and mechanical, as if many takes must have been taken in order to capture the recorded performance as it was. There was none of that with Peña: everything was perfectly fluid and seemingly-unscripted (an impossibility, I know, but a master makes it look that way).

The only part I found a bit distracting were the castanets. I know they're traditional but, to me, they most overshadowed the music and I found them a distraction from what I was really trying to listen to. It may have been a mixing or acoustic issue, or it may just be something that I don't like.


I can easily say that Massey Hall has the best acoustics of any of the halls I've been to to hear this style of music. Considering the size of the hall, I was expecting less; but the subtleties of every note could be heard very well and there was no distracting feedback and were no annoying standing waves, at least where I was sitting. I was very pleased with the acoustics.


Seeing as this concert was in Toronto and of a more traditional type, I was expecting a more varied audience. It was quite similar to what you'd see in Oakville (which is where I've seen most of the other artists above): mostly white, and over 30. Although, there were far more singles of all ages in the audience.


So, again, this was a great performance and I could easily be convinced to go to another. I can only really compare to what I know and, as I said, this was in a class above anything else I've seen so far.

One day, I also hope to see the "other Paco" -- Paco De Lucia. I missed him the last time he was in town, so hopefully I will get another chance.

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