As Metheny traded his acoustic for a hollow-bodied electric, drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Steve Rodby joined him and they launched full-bore into a frenetic Be-bop number. Metheny, in a musical stream of consciousness, let his fingers fly in electrifying perpetual motion. Then, after the applause died down and the remainder of the Pat Metheny Group took their places, the band proceeded over the next three hours to obliterate the memory of those ten glorious minutes.
While Metheny’s solo work is more artistically complete, it is with the Pat Metheny Group that he has obtained and maintained his greatest popularity. Metheny and the Group worked their way through 20 years worth of repertoire and a seemingly endless line of guitars, including a mutant hybrid monster that fused the bodies of a standard six-string guitar, a lute and a zither. While Metheny adeptly negotiated his way through a minefield of special effects pedals, the sheer variety of guitars he handled bordered on sensory overload. To mix textures while keeping musical flow on “As It Is,” he moved from a guitar strapped to a stand to one slung over his back. He then swapped that for another that was a guitar trying to sound like an electric keyboard ?trying to sound like a space-age piano. Impressive? Yes. Compelling? No.
Despite the fact that the Group’s recorded music can be labelled “smooth,” familiarity with their work breeds comfort, not contempt. Metheny is capable of crafting some gorgeous melodies. Moreover, the Group’s sound has a nice thickness and weight to it, guitars and bass frequently aligning along parallel octaves. “The Gathering Sky” for example, a cantering afro-calypso number, is less restrained live than on the album and revels in its own pure happiness. After shifting through three melodic themes, drummer Antonio Sanchez took a solo and built towards a frenetic climax where, with eyes closed, you would swear at least three or four percussionists were playing simultaneously. Keyboardist Lyle Mays adds sparse, brittle piano and in the middle of it all is Metheny.
Ironically , the show’s best moments received relatively lukewarm applause. In multi-instrumentalist Richard Bona and trumpter/vocalist Cuong Vu, the Group has found two brilliant artists. Hailing from Cameroon, Bona brings a lovely pure, high voice, and a lyrical, warm electric bass while Vu’s voice and horn are in equal measure poised and pristine. They blended beautifully on the chorale opening of “Another Life” and both produced restrained evocative solos that fleshed out Metheny’s soundscapes. The most tumultuous applause, however, was reserved for the bandleader himself.
At times, the show felt like Kraftwerk on a bad day or a poor-man’s Pink Floyd. Metheny matched David Gilmour’s expansiveness, but lacked his legendary restraint. Moreover, the sound that the Group cultivates is so electronic that it removes any spirit from the music. Heavy drapes covered Mays’ grand piano to dampen any resonance, and Vu’s trumpet was so heavily processed that he might as well been playing an electronic keyboard. The sum total was largely lifeless music that was soothing, placating and soporific.
It was impossible to doze off, however, when the band launched into a horn showcase that riffed on Metheny’s composition “Offramp.” Vu crafted a searing, unsettling sonic landscape by half-blowing, half-buzzing into his horn. He simultaneously filtered and looped the sound with a mixer at his side and proceeded to solo over the resulting vamp. Initially captivating for its ingenuity, it decayed into a druggy, hellish stream of screaming guitars, strobing lights and tumult of menacing drums. It was an unsettling, visual and auditory apocalypse that left the audience puzzling as to how this fit into the band’s greater vision.
As the night wore on (and on and on), the show began to feel like a progressive rock arena concert from the 1970s or 1980s. Perhaps it was the ethereal synthesizers or the towering stacks of speakers that flanked the stage, but it was largely the lighting design that lent the concert a surreal, throwback air. New-age images and silhouetted trees played against floor-to-ceiling cloth banners while colored lights cut through the machine-smoke haze of the auditorium, adding a visual overload to the musical excess.
Metheny himself was so comically earnest and his yuppie audience so vigorously responsive that at times the concert resembled a self-help meeting with the Group providing the soundtrack, whose latest title, Speaking of Now, sounds like a self-help book. The show was about as challenging and exciting as well.