Six strings and no soul: Pat Metheny in action

As a guitarist, I’ve always endured a pretty love-hate relationship with Pat Metheny. Digging around the vaults I found this review, commissioned earlier this year by a national newspaper but never published, it still holds pretty true…

Fusion guitar wizard Pat Metheny has left both jazz and pop fans scratching their heads for decades.

A phenomenal player capable of making your average guitarist weep, he has been generally content to churn out pleasant, hummable records which are often accused of underselling his talents.

His blatant commercialism means Metheny attracts a diverse mix of hardcore jazzers, guitar geeks and middle-aged soft rock fans – all of whom were out in full force for this Barbican gig, the band’s first European appearance in five years, and first as a stripped-back quartet for more than three decades.

The two-hour set strafed material from across the band’s tenure – tunes which verged from tense, hard-line fusion to fluffy, inconsequential ditties. But whatever the context Metheny managed to salvage something interesting to say with his characteristic, lengthy solos.

Sporting a ragged, curly, shoulder-length bop, dressed in tight jeans and white trainers, and shaking his head excitedly as he played, he was the splitting image of a washed-up rocker. But his tone stayed light and airy, while the notes he played were deep and thoughtful, often building to a raging juggernaut of Technicolor scale-hopping.

Pianist Lyle Mays, a member of the group since its inception in 1977, switched between an acoustic grand piano and an array of electronics, feeding Metheny the tasteful but unobtrusive layers he needs to improvise over. Meanwhile his own solos were distinctive and harmonically diverting, each building slowly to tell a small story of its own.

Across the stage Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez cooked up a thunderous storm, while acoustic and electric bassist Steve Rodby failed to shine, turning in pedestrian improvisations during his spotlight moments.

While Metheny’s own playing was exquisite, owning the instrument in the way only a true player can, at times it all seemed a little calculated and soulless.  One feels that his best playing is being locked away inside somewhere, and it may take more than the unchallenging orchestration and light-rock arrangements of his own group to let it out.

Pat Metheny Group at the Barbican (July 10, 2010)

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