Just as Jesus once left Chicago, the world’s greatest living guitarist left the Emerald City yesterday after an intimate eight-show residence at Jazz Alley. Classic rock heads and Rolling Stone listicles will disavow that statement. But you wouldn’t find much disagreement on Sixth Avenue this week, where lines stretched night after soggy night round the marquee to catch a glimpse of one man, his ten fingers, and a six-string guitar.
Enter Pat Metheny, 69, his riotous mop of hair a stately gray, his clothing black on rumpled black, his smile wide and toothy. With a workmanlike nod to the audience, he sat down and picked up a nylon-stringed axe, one of many arranged onstage and the quietest of the lot.
It was an appropriate place to start. This Dream Box tour supports Metheny’s record of the same name, a ruminative batch of solo arrangements he assembled last year. Metheny says it’s his 53rd album, and notes that it’s a rare one, in that he’s unaccompanied all the way through.
Following his subdued musical prologue, Metheny grabbed the microphone and delivered a more garrulous conversational intro, veering from his childhood in Missouri to the Berklee School of Music, Gary Burton’s New Quartet, and finally to his partnership with Charlie Haden, wherefrom his next tune derived. Metheny is a giant of American music – he’s won Grammys in 10 different categories, the only person to do so – but he comes across as he always has, a likeable albeit intense brainiac with restless band kid energy.
His monologue concluded with, “Anyway, whatever, thanks for coming you guys.”
Metheny sat on a low, metal-legged stool for most of his performance, surrounded by the tools of his trade and some bulky black drapes (keep those in mind). He urged the packed house to stay quiet for the start of the set, explaining that things would get louder when he switched to steel strings. The evening’s trajectory thus laid out, Metheny wandered into a baroque-mannered medley from his and Charlie Haden’s Beyond the Missouri Sky.
This subtle start gave way to amplification and experimentation, an evolving guitar-based variety show. First Metheny switched from nylon strings to steel, and then from finger style to strumming. Ninth chords turned into a dissonant array of scratching, chugging, and blues notes. Free jazz? That might undersell it. Metheny’s arm began to swell like a pressurized firehose. He made his signature guitar faces. When the atonal sketch cut off he brought out his infamous 42-string “Pikasso Guitar,” crafted by Canadian luthier Linda Manzer when her client (Metheny) asked for an instrument with “as many strings as possible.”
Because of the hair – a bit Einstein, a bit Sideshow Bob – Metheny can resemble a mad scientist when he plays. He hinted at this persona with the Pikasso guitar but left his grand experiment for the end of the night. Now the mysterious drapes were drawn aside to reveal a pared-down version of Metheny’s orchestrion, a kind of musical Rube Goldberg device he designed and toured with in the aughts.
A twenty-foot-wide rack of bongos, cymbals, bells, tambourines, and vibraphones, all played by robotic arms and switches, the orchestrion is a distillation of Metheny’s lifelong tinkering. An electric bass and hollow-body guitar, both at standing height, were revealed beneath yet other drapes. Looking perfectly content, a Frankenstein among his musical monster, Metheny jogged back and forth making a one-man band, looping lines while his automated percussion whistled and clacked. The last instrument in his repertoire was a fan favorite, the Roland G-303 synthesizer guitar (see: 1992’s Parallel Realities Live). He used it to take a brief rockstar turn.
Metheny spent longer in Seattle than he did in any other city on his Dream Box Tour, with good reason. Thanks to patron saint Jimi Hendrix, this is a guitar town. I’m not sure if Jesus ever looped back through Chicago – you’d have to ask Billy Gibbons – but I hope Metheny will continue to visit Jazz Alley well into his seventies. He seems to have the energy for it.