Friday, April 16, 2010

Concert Review: Pat Metheny and His Orchestrion in Austin

I've been aware of Pat Metheny since his first album, Bright Size Life came out in '76 - and I've always liked and, especially, respected him - but I am not what you would call a fanboy. The PMG stuff has always been a little too... non-aggressive, I guess - for my taste, and also some of it strikes me as same-same sounding and self-indulgent: One PMG project sounds pretty much like any other to me, musically, though there has obviously been a lot of evolution, just not in a direction that particularly wows me.

A huge, gargantuan, and singular exception to all of my nonplussed reaction to his music is the solo baritone guitar album he did, One Quiet Night, the CD of which lived in the dashboard of my pickup for nearly three years. I like that CD better than any solo classical guitar CD with the exception of some of those by Kazuhito Yamashita, and believe it to be truly a transcendental and sublime masterpiece. That it won a Grammy for Best New Age Album is, I think, hilarious and, well, just wrong on too many levels to even contemplate.

I've actually met Pat a few times, as we were both Synclavier Guitarists back in the mid to late 1980's, and so I met him a couple of times when he performed with it at Berklee, and also at Dartmouth, where NED had a summer session for Synclavier owners in... crap, it's been a long time - 1985 or 1986 I believe. He's a super-positive guy and seems to be one of the happiest and most well-adjusted musicians I've ever met.

He's also adventurous - being a Synclavier guy is a huge plus in my book - and his latest project with the Orchestrion he has put together is, in many ways, just an extension of what he was doing twenty-five years ago with the Synclavier... only this monstrosity is computer-driven mechanical versus purely digitized.

As I was enjoying the show, I wondered how I'd explain it, and Pat himself explained some of it during breaks in the performance, but, um, "you had to be there." Beginning with the simplest metaphor, any technically literate guitarist is familiar with the JamMan concept: You record a vamp you want to play along with, loop it, and play over that. Well, in a way, the Orchestrion is the ne plus ultra of that concept... or is it the sine qua non?

The next level metaphor would be the simple digital sequencer, which works like the JamMan concept, except for the fact that you are recording a MIDI track that will instruct a digital instrument or computer what to do: Which instrument sound to play, and what notes - the Synclavier was just a self-contained environment for doing precisely this. Okay then, now imagine that your JamMan-Sequencer hybrid is controlling real, actual acoustic instruments and not just virtual ones, and you now understand the Orchestrion concept.

This is deep, man, because it takes mechanical actuators to actually strike, pluck, bow, and blow these things. If you think about that for a moment and let it sink in, you realize touring with such a contraption must be a first order logistical nightmare. Just imagine touring with a digitally controlled player piano, a digitally controlled steam calliope, and a couple of Yamaha Disklaviers - all of which the performer has real time control over via foot pedals - and you can get just a taste of how much of a horror show these performances must be to stage. Seriously, I don't know why Pat did this, but I'm kinda glad he did. As for myself, I find the Synclavier concept superior in nearly every way, except for the shock value.

The show was at The Paramount, which is an old theater from the golden age of film. It's not nearly as creepy-cool as the Majestic here in San Antonio, but it's not a bad venue for a show like this. Here's the pre-show view from my seat about 2/3 back from the stage on the main floor.

Pat started out with what was, for me, the best of what he does, which is solo guitar. First up was him playing a Manzer Nylon String Guitar, I believe, and the tune was quite a lovely beginning. I did find the bass percussion and rumble that came through his pickup and amplification system a bit distracting though, but that's what you get with piezo and internal mic combinations. My RMC Polydrives don't have that problem. Ha!

Then he brought out the Manzer Baritone Guitar for a One Quiet Night type of piece - and that was the highlight of the night for me, right there - and finally, for his introductory pieces, the bizarre Manzer Pikasso came out for an outrageously over-the-top piece with epic levels of many effects. "Too much of a good thing" crossed my mind.

To introduce the audience to the Orchestrion concept, Pat went back - waaaay back - to a piece from Bright Size Life in which he used just a single percussion instrument to play along with. Then the curtain came up to reveal the whole army of mechanically actuated instruments. There were actually a couple of Disklaviers, blown-bottle organs, guitars, basses, a marimba, a xylophone, and about a gazillion percussion instruments. Knowing that this was an historic, once-in-a-lifetime type of event that would be discussed and debated for years, if not decades, made it impossible for me to resist pulling out my iPhone and surreptitiously snapping a single shot.

Here's the thing: I was with a guitarist friend - we go back to our years together at both the Guitar Institute and Berklee - and he is the biggest Metheny fanboy you can imagine. Well, even Mike agreed that all of the music would have been better realized with a real, actual drummer versus the percussion ideas that Pat came up with. I'll take that one step further and say I don't think Pat's Orchestrion Suite translates to recorded media at all. Coming into this show, I had seen a lot of video and listened to the recordings, but for this project you really, truly actually do have to be there to experience it first hand. It's psychedelically mind blowing live, but very ho-hum to me recorded, even on video. You just have to see all those actuators in action.

So I think this show is an absolute must see for any guitar fan - no solo guitarist in history has ever done so much with... so much - but unless you are a rabid Pat Metheny fanboy, don't expect to get anywhere near the same universe in terms of an experience from the recorded media. You might as well be listening to a guy playing a JamMan along with a sampler.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Appreciate your take on the new tour. My .02: I have been a Pat fan since about 1981. I had a conversation with a DJ at the biggest jazz station in San Fran around 1990 that reminded me of Pat's following. When I asked for one of his songs, the DJ simply said, "Pat Metheny is not God, you know." Point taken.

Anyway. I too was impressed as usual with Pat's solo stuff, his improvisational wizardry, his ability to find yet another groove in those signature compositional licks he lives on. I was also more than impressed by the work that must have been involved in creating the realization of this concept, the compositional aspects, and the programming of everything. I loved it when the curtain came up on the big apparati. Then, my enthusiasm at the view of the scape over the edge of the cliff fell off like a car that got out of control.

It just seemed.... canned. To many contrivances of preprogramming. Too much predefinition. No interactivity. I laughed out loud as he repeatedly gestured his appreciation of a drum or snare or whistle coming in on cue. What the hell? That was bizarre.

I drove 3.5 hours to Reno for this?!? People were exiting in droves at the break between the songs. I'd never seen this at a Metheny show before. I stood there and watched stunned by that.

Here's the thing: if he can go to that length to compose all this stuff, why not just hire a great band to play it?

When I bought the requisite shirt on the way out, I mentioned to the hawkster that I was non-plussed. You could tell that he'd been hearing that. "Did you know what you were coming to see?" came the reply. "Yes, I guess I did," I said. Point taken again.

I never thought I'd say this, but my brother and I were considering driving to the next show coming next week in the next state. No way. It's a huge endeavor that Pat pulled off here, but it's a sideshow act. It's creative, and he played his ass off to it, but an entire tour? You just can't play against a computerized solenoid-driven orchestra and call it cool. It's too contrived. I'm one of those guys who all my friends have called his biggest fan. That doesn't include this album or tour.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Excellent comment. You ought to have your own music weblog!

The Austin crowd was very appreciative though. I didn't notice anyone leaving early, and Pat was called out for a couple of encores by the standing O's.

Like I said, I'm glad I got to see it live, but it didn't slay me (Like Kazuhito Yamashita's concert in Austin last year did).

12:56 PM  

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