Concert Review: Pat Metheny and His Orchestrion in Austin
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.