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SMF Review: Tomatito
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The Savannah Music Festival scored a major coup when it brought the legendary godfather of Flamenco guitar, Paco de Lucia, to the Johnny Mercer Theatre in 2012.

The great de Lucia passed away just last month, but one of his protégés and collaborators, Jose Fernandez Torres – aka Tomatito – did a masterful job keeping his mentor’s spirit alive this past Thursday at the Lucas for opening night of this year’s Festival.

Like the de Lucia show, this performance echoed the usual no-intermission Flamenco/Gypsy style stage presentation: several black-clad players seated in a semi-circle around the virtuoso main guitarist, including a pair of singers, a percussionist on the cajon, a couple of rhythm guitarists, and of course a dancer (more on her later).

Almost always beginning with an extended solo lead-in from Tomatito – age 55 but looking much younger, a full head of long curly black locks – each sinuous, sexy song built on the previous one, amping up the intensity level to a predictably transcendental climax.

The intricate, mutable, overlapping time signatures of Flamenco – 6/8, 3/4, 12/8, 4/4 and more, often switching on a moment’s notice, as with jazz – added to the hypnotic effect, a preternatural vibe emphasized by the passionate, almost primal vocal stylings of dual singers Kiki Cortiñas and Simón Román, who, in Flamenco style, seem to wring up every imaginable human emotion from deep within their bodies.

If de Lucia’s playing was known for its lightning speed, silky smoothness, and angelically lyric phrasing, Tomatito’s styling is more rock ‘n’ roll – a greater emphasis on rhythm and more clearly defined notes, with phrasing that’s less adventurous but still strongly compelling in its own right.

Amid the frequent “oles” to each other on stage, Tomatito only spoke to the audience three times, briefly, and only in Spanish. One was thanking Savannah for the warm welcome, and another was a tribute to Paco de Lucia while introducing one of de Lucia’s pieces, performed with emotion and aplomb.

I’m pleased to report that, unlike some Music Fest Flamenco shows of past years, the audience at the Lucas seemed fully prepared for the aural and emotional intensity of the show – Flamenco being one of the most viscerally earthy folk genres and quite different from the watered-down, sterilized, and generic Western pop culture most of us are used to.

Indeed, judging by the many enthusiastic shouted encouragements from the audience and their obvious understanding of Tomatito's stage patter en espanol, there was quite a large number of Spanish speakers in attendance – surely a welcome first for me in years of observing Music Fest shows and audiences.

As is often the case with Flamenco shows, the audience really comes alive when the dancer is taken by the spirit and steps onto the hardwood performance floor in their boots – or in this case, heels. Flamenco dancing is typically a mostly male pursuit, but Tomatito’s concerts feature the fiery, dramatic, and aggressive dancing of young Paloma Fantova.

While only dancing twice all night – the first appearance being teasingly short – Fantova closed the show and brought the house down with a nearly 20-minute tour-de-force of hard-soft, fast-slow percussive dynamics: twirling, stomping, tapping, and snapping, in a mostly improvised performance responding to the building drive of the full band and Tomatito’s guitar.

While dancing Fantova wears a serious, almost grim visage, fitting the drama of the music. But as she finishes and basks in the audience’s applause, her face lights up in a grin more befitting her young age.

In all, a hard Festival opener to top!