Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pat Metheny's Rube Goldberg Concert at Massey Hall: May 13, 2010

I can't say I've ever been a big or even moderate fan of Pat Metheny, but whenever I've heard his music I've always been impressed by his playing. My wife has been a fan for years, though, so when it was announced he would be playing Massey Hall she suggested we go (she hadn't seen him for a long time and she wanted me to see him perform). Expecting Metheny and a band (he has in the past played with great players, so the possibility of watching Metheny exchanging licks with other talented musicians sounded promising), we bought tickets and on May 13th headed back to Massey (after our last visit there on March 9 to see Jamie Cullum). We went in completely blind to what he was doing on this tour.

The stage was simple, with packing crates visible near the stage, a piano on one side, two vibraphones and a single cymbal on the other. A couple of Persian-style rugs covered the stage and a clumsily arrayed red curtain covered the back of the stage. About 15 minutes late, Metheny took the stage by himself, sat down, bent over his guitar and proceeded to play the first of three pieces. It was masterful playing, full of ingenious rhythms and great musicianship. Then a roadie charged out, gave him a guitar with what looked like a stumpy second fret sticking out of the top. It turned out to be a combination guitar and harp called a Pikasso. Custom-built for Metheny by Torontonian Linda Manzer, it had 42 strings that allowed Metheny to play guitar and harp simultaneously. That should have been a clue. Twenty minutes passed and he had yet to say a thing to the audience other than mouthing some genuine-looking "thank yous."

A thought flitted through my head as we watched him play these early pieces. With his head of thick, long curly hair cascading down the side of his head, it was as if we were watching a younger version of Dr. Emmet Brown (Christopher Lloyd) from the Back to the Future movies playing guitar to himself in his basement.

For the next piece, he began playing again, then one of the vibraphones and the single cymbal began to accompany him without a player. It was then we realized that Metheny was all we were getting. As that song ended, the curtains were removed and I knew we were DEFINITELY watching Dr. Brown. The curtains covered a wall of cymbals, drums, maracas, guitars, water blow jugs, a second piano and seemingly dozens of other instruments. Metheny began again, and as he manipulated foot pedals and played the guitar, the wall started to play along with him.

This went on for an hour. For about 15 minutes, it was intriguing watching him play with and against this exotic "one-man band," but after that my mind began to wander. I thought about writing projects, my family (I'd just returned from visiting my parents and sister in BC), and all the detritus that flits through one's head when we become distracted.

During that hour, there were about four long pieces of music. We applauded as each piece ended for the skill and audacity involved, but the whole thing lacked human feeling. Finally, after 70 minutes of playing, Metheny took to the microphone and said: "Wherever I play this, I'm always asked two questions: a/ Have I lost my mind? and b/ How does this all work?" He set aside the first question with a laugh from the audience and explained as best he could how it all worked, stating that to really understand it all would take three hours. Basically, everything was controlled either by his guitar or the foot pedals. The guitar (plus the pedals on stage) became an elaborate MIDI machine that was able to tell each instrument what to play and when. The rhythms were not programmed in advance; he was telling each instrument as he played what to play. He demonstrated through two improvisations exactly how it worked.

It was all fascinating and when the concert ended after 2 hours and 20 minutes, I was impressed by the technical virtuosity of it, but I was also left very cold. Metheny is a great guitarist and his ability to make this crazy idea work on stage was fascinating. But without the human contact of a live band it became a stunt. A really interesting stunt, yes, but a stunt nonetheless. It also would have helped that after playing for, say, 15 minutes with the wall of instruments he should have explained a little what he was up to (perhaps this would have prevented my mind from wandering).

This is what happens when you go into a concert completely cold. Metheny's website (and also an article in The Globe and Mail that I missed on May 13th) explained that this was the tour in support of the newest album, Orchestrion, an album recorded by him using the same technique he demonstrated that night on the stage of Massey Hall. I have to admit that I was glad on some level that I knew nothing going in so it all came as a big surprise, but since this was probably the only time in my life I'd probably see Metheny live I would have preferred to see him share the stage with a bunch of flawed humans.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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