Playing for the first time at our US/EU Jazz – Blues Festival 2023, a surprisingly intimate 1,800-person room that opened, Pat Metheny had a space ideally suited for his famously buttery tone.
The surroundings were mildly opulent without being fussy, boasted a capacious stage for Metheny’s impressive wealth of keyboards, guitars and homemade instruments and, most importantly, pristine acoustics that allowed the nearly full house to hear the nuances of every note with razor-sharp clarity.
Pat Metheny assembled his current project Side-Eye as a vehicle to work with a diverse, changeable cast of younger musicians in a retooled trio format. And about that tone; while Metheny’s many excellent albums capture his exuberant skill, eclectic influences and complex moods, they don’t, it turns out, do justice to the way his guitar actually sounds. Limpid and silky, it can often seem sanded down — “too smooth,” as many detractors argue — in the studio, overly processed both in the sonic and the culinary sense. Live, it’s a different story, that smoothness showing all sorts of precisely defined, oddly contoured and unexpected edges, while Metheny’s elastic fervor — which can read as cheese to the uninitiated — fills a room with a boundlessly confident, even forceful authority.
The near-two-hour concert began and ended with Metheny alone on a stool at center stage, first on his 42-string Pikasso, a crisscrossed harp guitar with plenty of places to tap and strum, and lastly on a simple nylon-string. In between, however, Metheny loosely wove a dynamic travelogue that stretched from “Bright Size Life,” the title track to his 1976 debut, to a minimal version of his so-called orchestrion, electro-acoustic sculptures with mechanical triggers to add percussive textures.
Metheny began the show solo, playing a custom-built monster of a harp/guitar called the “Pikasso,” presumably because its multiple necks, two sound holes and wealth of criss-crossing strings make it resemble a Cubist painting. Though it may resemble an imaginary instrument, Metheny made it sound very real, turning the empyreal “Into the Dream,” from 1997’s Imaginary Day, into an extended polyphonic meditation and a cosmic hoedown, at one point knocking on its vast body and later triggering a sampled bass line through some sort of mysterious technological wizardry.
Both seemed a bit slow to settle in as Metheny took them through a bouncy run-through of “So May It Secretly Begin,” from the 1987 classic Still Life. By the time the trio took “Bright Size Life,” the opening song from Metheny’s 1976 debut album of the same name – still perhaps the maestro’s snappiest and most recognizable riff – through its paces, everything started to click.
The group ostensibly operates as an organ trio, but a modern one where Fishman leaned to his synthesizers and piano more than his compact rear Hammond. His Side-Eye predecessor James Francies may be a tough act to follow, but Fishman slowly developed his place in the sound, spinning circular left-hand bass lines on synth while soloing with his right hand on piano. Metheny occasionally fingered low strings of his guitar to fill out the bottom as well, notably freeing Fishman for a two-handed piano flight in a duet treatment of Pat Metheny Group chestnut “Phase Dance.” Notes remained sparse and tasteful, and the bandleader stuck to one guitar throughout as he phrased the song’s signature chords and harmonics.
Yet, the set truly opened up once Metheny unveiled his guitar synthesizer, unleashing that thicker, trumpet-like tone to solo out of “When We Were Free.” From there, he flipped to the opposite dynamic with a solo acoustic turn through the pastoral nugget “Farmer’s Trust.” Then covers were lifted off three stacks at the back of the stage to reveal his mini-orchestrion setup, most noticeable for layered textures from vibraphone and marimba bars that each lit up as they were triggered when the group negotiated the bubbling “It Starts When We Disappear,” the 13-minute opening track from Side-Eye’s live debut.
When the night soon came around to an encore, Metheny returned to his stool for a more traditional nylon-string wander through bits of crowd-pleasing melodies, showcasing “James,” a folky tune inspired by James Taylor. And while it might have been preferable for the band to return for a final blow/bow, Metheny had made his statement and, in the end, the Side-Eye marquee carried his name and legacy.
Metheny gave his bandmates plenty of opportunity to strut their stuff, letting each take long solos at one point even leaving the stage and duetting with both. The longest and most impressive song of the evening was also the only one that began a little shakily. The Side-Eye original “It Starts When We Disappear,” makes use of a sampled, almost techno-like percussion track, and this version also utilized Metheny’s self-playing, solenoid-triggered musical instruments/sculptures from the Orchestrion album. Initially, possibly because of hurdles with the whimsical electronics, Metheny’s laserlike focus, his head almost never stops nodding as he plays, seemed to falter. The problems must have resolved themselves, though, as Metheny found his footing and the band followed suit with a burst of energy. The music transformed several times, from Metheny’s trademark rapid-fire razzle-dazzle to warmly assertive organ noodling to space-age retro-futurist pyrotechnics.
While fans of Metheny’s unstoppable power noodling and searing yet gooey guitar-synth acrobatics were given plenty to chew on, he also dipped into his quieter material. A down-tempo, at times halting version of “Better Days Ahead,” originally a breezy, tropicalia-infused jaunt from 1989’s Letter From Home, gave Fishman his first chance to shine, and allowed Metheny to display his nearly superhuman control of rhythmic dynamics. “Farmer’s Trust” demonstrated another side to Metheny: lyrical and romantic — if not simple, at least uncomplicated. When combined with the theater’s elegant lighting effects, the song had an intense poignancy and an emotional heft that captivated the room.
Except to express thanks every now and then and to praise his band members, Metheny didn’t address the audience or give any indication. He also didn’t play any of his numerous songs: “Missouri Uncompromised,” “Lone Jack” or, most disappointingly, the epic “As Wichita Falls, So Falls Wichita Falls,” to name a few. But by the time he played the legendarily smooth groover “Last Train Home” as a solo acoustic number that activated the bittersweet longing usually hidden by digital moodscapes for the first of two encores, we knew we we’d seen something special, even if it had been just another night on tour for Metheny and his band.
Unfortunately, the video is not from our festival, but it was performed with the same composition and the same composition.