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Al Di Meola at Balboa Theater

Jim Worsley By

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Al Di Meola
Balboa Theater
San Diego, CA
September 22, 2017

Most of us have been on many journeys in life. It might be globetrotting or a trip to the grocery store or all and everything in between. A journey can be filled with a myriad of the expected and unexpected. Of stops and starts. Of turns and curves. Of upgrades and downslopes. There are bumps in the road and detours.

Al Di Meola, and his inclusive sextet, performed recently at the Balboa Theater in downtown San Diego. They took us on a musical journey that had all of the aforementioned traits and more.

The historic Balboa Theater was built in 1924 as a vaudeville/movie theater. Refurbished as a performing arts center, it thankfully still has the feel of the past. Its architecture and décor were carefully preserved during the redesign and renovation process. The Balboa Theater has personality and provides an appealing setting in its ambience. It is also acoustically superb.

The 40th Anniversary Elegant Gypsy Electric Tour featured bassist Elias Tona, Luis Alicea on drums, Phil Magallanes on keys, electric violinist Evan Garr, and longtime Di Meola percussionist Gumbi Ortiz. Overall they were quite impressive. Especially when you factor in the challenge and degree of difficulty in playing with a guitarist with such precision and the continual progression changes.

They came out firing on all cylinders. An hour of electrically charged music had past in what seemed liked maybe half that amount time. Time flies when you are having fun! The tone and richness of Di Meola's guitars were spectacular. It was hardly like that was unexpected, but still blows you away in its magnificence.

The unexpected occurred when they kicked in to a Led Zeppelin tune. The Robert Plant high range vocal part was played deftly by Garr on his violin. This was a crowd pleaser, but also led to a bump. About midway through they stumbled/stopped but then quickly got it back together while laughing it off.

They then seemlessly went in to the fiery "Midnight Tango." This song was perhaps the highlight of the evening. It was played with verve and countless switchbacks. Di Meola's soaring and limitless adventure took our journey to a high and energetic, yet serene, place.

The only other bump would be better stated as a disappointment. Gumbi Ortiz, as the rest of the ensemble, was terrific. However, it would have been nice to hear him stretch out more on his percussion kit. Even for just one song. It seemed as though he and drummer Alicea were going to do that at one point. But instead they wrapped it up pretty quickly as if they had a plane to catch.

The first set ended on a high note with the audience eagerly anticipating more. After about a 20 minute break, Di Meola returned to the stage unaccompanied. He launched into three beautifully played acoustic tunes. The third of which was the Lennon/McCartney Beatles song "I Will." He had recorded this, along with a collection of other Beatles songs in 2013 on his album All My Life. I could see many people in the audience of around 1,200 people looking at each other as if to say that doesn't sound like "I Will." A reasonable response if you had never heard his version before. Di Meola uses the melody sparingly relying more on a complex instrumental arrangement that embraces it. It was a delightfully clever piece. He has long credited The Beatles as the reason why he started playing guitar.

Then the band was back on stage for an electrifying finish to what ended up being about an hour and 40 minutes show. I could be dubbed "Master of the Obvious" to tell you that we heard a lot from the Elegant Gypsy and Casino era. I was pleased that our journey included a sharp right turn on Elysium (Di Meola's most recent record) avenue. The engaging "Babylon" and impassioned "Adour" flowed well in the playlist. Di Meola's performance was a high-end instrumental juggernaut for sure. The musical odyssey concluded with the spirited "Egyptian Danza" as their encore.

Di Meola treated us all to the full array of colors on his pallet pulling from his vast library of rhythmically layered compositions. His provocative embodiment of Latin, jazz, flamenco, fusion, world, and more was elegantly sophisticated in approach. This intricate journey was much appreciated as a treat for my ears and fuel for my brain.


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