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Pitingo wows a too-small crowd at the Morris Center
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Back in late 2007 when the 2008 Savannah Music Fest's schedule was first announced, Executive and Artistic Director Rob Gibson told me to make a special attempt to catch Antonio Pitingo. "You've never seen anything like it," he gushed.

I was wise to follow his advice.

Now, with a few days hindsight, I can truthfully say that while I had experienced musical performances that were perhaps similar in nature, or which covered some of the same territory, I had, in fact, never seen anything quite like this 28-year-old Spanish wunderkind.

While Pitingo (he prefers to go by his surname only) is something of a young sensation in his native land, he is virtually unknown outside of Europe. This one-night stand (he played two complete and vastly different sets) in the newly opened Charles H. Morris Center was all the more worth catching, as it was the singer's second ever U.S. appearance, and the only one he'll likely make this year.

That's correct: the SMF flew he and his brother (who accompanied Antonio on acoustic guitar) into town just for this gig. They stuck around an extra day to take advantage of a cheaper return flight, and then flew straight back to Spain.

So, what's so special about Pitingo? Well, for one thing he oozes charisma. And when I say oozes, I mean it practically flowed from the ruffled collar of his flowing white shirt. To say he had everyone of the 120 or so attendants of his late set in the palm of his hand would be an understatement.

A diminutive man with a voice and emotional range to his Spanish-language singing that might aptly be termed gigantic, he cut a dashing figure in a fitted, dark velvet jacket, tight pants and Cuban-heeled ankle boots. His thick, wiry hair a resplendent, airborne wreck, he seemed one part troubadour, one part gigolo, and one part stage actor.

The show began with Pitingo and his brother striding quietly on stage and taking their seats: the vocalist perched and leaning back on a high stool for support, his brother seated in a low chair to better facilitate playing the acoustic guitar. This low-key entrance gave no clue as to the intense, mesmerizing display of vocal prowess and dexterous fretwork to follow.

From the moment the show itself began, the audience was locked on this pair, who were, in their own way, locked onto each other. Pitingo has been described as (and has accepted the mantle of) a "flamenco soul" singer, and that is the easiest way to describe just what it is he does.

Singing in Spanish (save for a strange and unexpected English chorus or two during his site specific run through "Georgia On My Mind"), Pitingo wrings no small amount of romance and pathos from long, involved story-songs rooted in the history and tradition of Andalusian peasants and gypsys.

However, while Pitingo (who has only been performing professionally since 2004) is obviously well-versed in (and devoted to) the oral traditions of those who came before him, he is also demonstrably influenced by classic American R & B and soul music - hence the "Georgia On My Mind".

This comes out in the way he carries himself on stage, his facial tics and mannerisms - which carefully straddle the fine line between contemporary pop diva shtick and the obsessive nature of someone locked onto the path of an historic art form such as flamenco.

Pitingo cooed, exclaimed, shouted, bellowed, cried out, whispered, and lulled throughout the show (and sometimes within the course of one song!). He used the microphone carefully, and in most cases, sang off-mic or far away from its diaphragm, utilizing the power of his own pipes and the acoustic character of the room itself as much if not more than the PA system.

His brother too, emphasized dynamics in his own playing. A masterful and endlessly inventive guitarist with a heavily developed rhythmic style based around harsh and unexpected starts, stops, percussive flourishes and a sweeping pick hand, he often stared straight at his vocalist brother, watching him carefully for the improvised outbursts and vocal variations which held the audience in rapt attention - and which, in turn, influenced his own choices on the guitar.

The melodies and structures of the songs they performed were used more as blueprints than sheet music (of which there was none). The songs dipped and swayed, ebbed and flowed, and at times, the musical friction resulting from the passion and intensity contained in their collaborative improvisation found creative sparks flying between the two.

A couple of times during the set, as Pitingo searched in vain for the proper English words to express himself, he wound up asking (in Spanish) if anyone in the crowd could help him translate his thoughts. While there seemed to be a sizable number of Spanish speakers in the audience (of which I wished I'd been one, as the songs he sang were often devoid of typical verse-chorus-verse structures, and detailed what must have been lengthy narratives), one of them, a shyly flustered Lara Garcia-Culler of the Georgia Historical Society, was convinced to come onstage by Pitingo and help deliver his words to the crowd.

Yet perhaps the most interesting aspect of Pitingo's performance was his amazing display of hand percussion. The role of using the hands and other parts of the body for rhythmic accompaniment is key in the world of flamenco, but to witness up close an artist with the ability to coax several distinctly different sounds from his own palms was mildly bewildering.

He would often cup his hand/s in varying degrees, or snap different fingers in astonishingly rapid succession (to create variations in pitch).

Occasionally, he employed a short, sharp "clicking" sound from his throat, which he would throw in from time to time in the middle of a snapping "run". This, in combination with a quiet but raspy scrape he created by rubbing his palms together in a semi-circular motion, essentially allowed Pitingo to function as his own organic beat box, and added yet another aspect to what rarely felt like a two-man show.

Toward the end of the show (he was called back for encores), he and his brother left the low stage and actually came down directly in front of the first row of seats to perform in a completely acoustic setting without amplification of any kind.

With a mildly wicked glint in his eyes, Pitingo, free from the cramped stage, and untethered to a microphone, paced back and forth from one side of the room to the other, hopping and skipping to the beat of his brother's guitar lines. He would occasionally shimmy, shake, strut and and stride, hopping on one foot (James Brown-style) as if floating. At times he would even slap his thighs and hips in conjunction with his hand-clapping in a distinctly Spanish variation of the old Appalachian "ham-bone" familiar to mountain folk.

Throughout the show, the crowd was whisper quiet except for the thunderous applause which followed each and every tune.

Watching Pitingo, I was struck by how much (in totality) he resembled a novel cross between Prince, James Brown and our own local crooner Trey Gurley.

I was also struck by how different this set was to clips of his other shows which I had found online. Rob Gibson tells me that Pitingo usually performs and records with a large, electric band. That format finds him incorporating his flamenco soul into what essentially amounts to a Spanish funk groove (so perhaps the Prince vibe is not that far off).

Yet, this SMF performance reminded me a great deal of another memorable festival set, this time from decades past.

At the 1967 Monterey Pop Fest, Jimi Hendrix, who had slugged it out for years as a sideman on the U.S. chitlin' circuit to little fanfare, returned from England for what essentially amounted to his North American debut as a band-leader. You've likely seen images or footage of that particular show. It's the one where he first set his Stratocaster on fire at the end of his set.

That was done as a sly and cheeky challenge to The Who, known for smashing their gear. They'd follow him that night, a bit of their thunder stolen.

But it was also done to make sure (in that pre-internet, pre-simulcast era) that every single person who was there to witness Hendrix's set would not only remember his name, but would likely talk about it for some time afterward.

That one set did more to establish the late guitarist a foothold on the U.S. rock scene than perhaps anything else in his career.

Now, a half-full 250-seat room at a fairly esoteric roots music showcase in Savannah is certainly no Monterey Pop. And Pitingo is no Jimi Hendrix.

But then again, everything is relative.

Pitingo was on fire that night, and I would not doubt for a minute that he saw that venue and that crowd as the perfect place to turn in an over-the-top, dazzling show that folks such as myself will be raving about to anyone who'll listen for years to come.