Classical guitar purists might cringe, but veterans of late-night infomercials and shopping channel instructional DVDs may be on to something when they cheered Esteban's spirited back-of-the-house entrance Thursday at The Smith Center. He immediately launched into a fired-up flamenco stew of snippets from the greatest hits of the rock era - with a dash of classical mixed in ("Stairway to Heaven," "Classical Gas" and "Eleanor Rigby" preceded by the black-clad man born as Stephen Paul stirring things up with a little "Hall of the Mountain King").
Top Esteban off with a bolero leather hat, shades (light sensitivity from a 1980 near-career-ending collision with a drunken driver), side-zip ankle boots and the patter of a stuck-in-the-'60s-and-'70s Sedona-style hipster and you have the makings of, at the very least, a curiosity backed by the bona fides of a few years slaving away at the fingers of hero Segovia himself. It's clear he has a great time onstage - and really does put a mean wail of tasty flamenco licks on tunes you might not have imagined being played that way.
Who wouldn't smile at his conjuring the spirit of Elvis ("He's alive today. Come on down and grace us with the presence of your bright little soul.") before launching into a heartwarming "Love Me Tender"?
The almost-packed house at the intimate Cabaret Jazz room was all-in for Esteban's 4,000-year musical journey that included his adaptation of what he said was the first written music of mankind mixed into a snake charmer called Mediterana. Violinist daughter Teresa Joy (a cool undulating porcelain flamenco gypsy doll with plenty of talent), drummer John Freixas, Brett Hansen (subtly providing multiple instrumentation from his electric keyboard) and bassist Tony Smith played right along with the seemingly incongruous genre-bending to make for a fascinating evening.
Between pithy autobiographical "long story short" bits, Esteban couldn't keep himself away from Medley Town. How about a little Celtic Dream ("Scottish/Irish druids from 800 AD") segueing into "The Last of the Mohicans" movie theme? Or try the nearly swoon-inducing flourishes of "Unchained Melody" mixed up with "Can't Help Falling In Love." And it works, especially the part where the blue-collar Pittsburgh native was a life-changing teenage moment away from following Dad into the steel mills (a newspaper ad for a guitar scholarship to Carnegie Mellon changed everything).
Seems as if Esteban will keep working this circuit as long as willing fans line up to give standing ovations to his truly en fuego "Fuego Malaguena." And why not? Especially when they get to see his daughter/accompanist also play the loving timekeeper who whispers to Dad that they need to wrap it up pretty soon - followed by identical Cheshire grins as they whip the crowd into a frenzy with their Speedy Gonzalez rendition of Del Shannon's "Runaway" before calmly sauntering into the lobby for an audience meet-and-greet/autograph session next to the merchandise table.