Elmwood Park - The spirits of Spanish Gypsies and
African slaves were channeled at Angie B’s this past Saturday as the music both
people helped to forge rocked, hard and harmoniously, courtesy of the flamenco
and blues masters of the Tony Rivera Band.
Ang-E-B's, with its stock neon beer ads and Harley Davidson meets Sports Center décor, is not exactly the kind of place you would imagine a big man like Rivera to be experimenting with flamenco-blues fusion and finding a receptive crowd.
But after Rivera moseyed up to the mike and began playing a rollicking interpretation of the Led Zeppelin classic "Bring It On Home," all doubts over whether the rowdy, bar-hopping masses would connect with the music were squelched. The band had them on their feet - which, considering the sobriety of some of the patrons, was an accomplishment in and of itself.
The set list included fast-and-loose covers of some of classic rock's most famous crowd-pleasing hits. Highlights included a spiced-up interpretation of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" and "Blowin' In the Wind," a fresh, flamenco take on Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," and four Grateful Dead tunes that led to some frenetic improvisations.
The jams gave the band plenty of great moments to showcase its musical muscle and vocal ability (Rivera and bassist Fred Scholl sang like every song was an encore) - and as pros, they knew how to shine without crossing the line into self-indulgent tedium. Grizzled, cigar-chomping guitarist Lew Levy had some great showdowns with Rivera, prompting the audience of about 50 to smile, whistle and cheer in fervent appreciation.
The group roused almost everyone. It certainly had a wiry, bespectacled man, who asked only to be called, Budweiser Bob, twisting and shouting - more than he was before the music started, that is.
"I love it. Otherwise, I wouldn't be on the dance floor. It takes me to another dimension," said Bob, a construction worker in his mid-40s. "Their rhythm section is exceptional, and I love their flamenco guitar playing. These guys should be playing bigger venues," said longtime fan Dave Bradler, a 30-something history teacher from Dumont.
"I think Tony's a real talented guy. He's creative and expressive without being cliché. They're a great band," raved Brian Fitzpatrick, a singer-songwriter from Clifton.
Drummer Danny Britt, whose Charlie Watt's-like controlled thrashing pushed the band to play harder and louder, explained why The Tony Rivera Band has a sound that guarantees them an unusual niche.
"Flamenco is a very advanced technique that only the well-trained know how to play, so it's very unique to have a flamenco master fuse that with the blues," said Britt. "It's really a rarity because a lot of people haven't put in the years of study that flamenco requires. I haven't really seen this done in all my time of seeking out new music."
Levy spoke of the cross-generational appeal of Rivera's new spin on rock classics.
"As far as the mix and the balance go, we must be doing something right because the people are enjoying it," said Levy. "We've been getting very good responses from different age groups. I think taking music we've heard many times before and pushing it into a new direction is what different age groups are finding most interesting."
The idea to meld the two genres into what Rivera terms "Blue Age" came to him five years ago, when he was studying both styles simultaneously and grew tired of having to switch guitars in between practice sessions.
Blues players traditionally use a steel-string guitar, either electric or acoustic. With flamenco, a nylon string guitar is the standard, giving it a higher tension resulting in a "brighter, more staccato sound" similar to classical guitars, Rivera noted. The songs they choose are based on the defining blues-chord progressions, that can continue on indefinitely. When Rivera applies his traditional right-handed flamenco technique, it creates a faster, more aggressive sound.
Yet, the fusion sounded surprisingly natural, which is strange considering the blues originated as African spirituals and the work songs of slaves on plantations; and flamenco - developed by poor, oppressed gypsies and indigenous Andalusians following the Moors' 1492 expulsion from Spain - was played for celebrations, rituals and dancing. But the blues have always proven malleable enough to withstand any transmutation.
B.B. King once said, "The blues is an expression of anger against shame and humiliation," and perhaps that is where the two styles intersect. For fans who still don't see the connection, they need only look deeper, explained Rivera.
"Flamenco songs are usually named after emotions or places. 'Allegrias' [a famous flamenco song] for instance, means 'happiness' - and when you listen to the song, that's exactly what you feel. And the blues similarly draw out these distinct emotions," said Rivera.
"There is an expression commonly used in the blues - 'We've got to bring these people home' - it means that you've got to get them to remember their homes, the good and bad times," added Rivera. "It's emotional and it reminds you of why you go to work, sit in traffic all day; why you live and why you breathe. It's the common ground all good music shares." For future listings, visit the Web site at www.TonyRiveraBand.com.
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