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Pat Metheny: Orchestrion Tour, Montreal

Pascal-Denis Lussier By

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Pat Metheny
Orchestrion Tour
Place des Arts
Montreal, Canada

October 12, 2010

Curiosity. More than anything else it was this that made guitarist/composer Pat Metheny's Orchestrion Tour concert at Montreal's Place des Arts complex (another stop on his successful 120-plus major-cities world tour) something to truly anticipate.

I can't claim being a true Metheny fan, my leanings are more towards Bill Frisell, but, while Metheny's compositional style speaks far less to me than to others, I do have a deep respect for his inventiveness and sheer virtuosity, as well as for anyone who can team with Ornette Coleman to make an album like Song X (Nonesuch, 1986). Nevertheless, it was the wildly experimental concept of Metheny's Orchestrion that was, for me, the attraction to this show. The idea is utterly fascinating—after all, this is a solo show that features an entire orchestra; how can the ability to control all those instruments while playing on just one guitar be anything but intriguing?

And so, the Théâtre Maisonneuve at Montreal's Place des Arts, with a seating capacity of 1,458, was packed, the crowd equally brimming with anticipation, theirs perhaps different from mine. Montrealers have a strange way of inexplicably embracing and developing a deep-rooted bond with certain musicians; Metheny is one of them. Truly quaint folks in several ways, and an inherent part of the city's appeal, it's no doubt why Metheny has always been so generous to Montrealers. But this also implies an audience that's equally quick to voice any disappointments, and also quite loud about it.

That curiosity? What drew so many? Was it love for the Orchestrion (Nonesuch, 2010) album and project? Was it Montrealers' love of the man? Or was it the freakshow, a That's Incredible-worthy feat of one man making music with so many instruments at once? In other words, did the crowd really know what to expect, or was this going to be another Lou Reed at the Montreal Jazz Fest fiasco from this past summer, where more than half of the audience booed Reed and walked out for not playing his classics, clearly having purchased their tickets unaware that he'd been billed as playing free form music with John Zorn and Laurie Anderson?

For these reasons it was no surprise that, the moment the lights dimmed, a standing ovation awaited Metheny's stage entry, nor to see Metheny glowing with that "good to be home" feeling. Without any introductions, he sat down and played two acoustic numbers, opening up with "Unrequited," from Metheny Meldhau (Nonesuch, 2006). The second—a crowd pleaser in every sense—was warmly applauded with the first recognizable melodic notes of his 1974 original "The Sun in Montreal."

During these two songs, everyone anticipated the moment when the carnival fair-like array of instruments, tuned bottles, pneumatics and all that surrounded Metheny were going to light up and spring to life.

Metheny then switched guitars, taking his outlandish 42-string Pikasso guitar (custom-built by Linda Manzer) from a stagehand, and everyone "ahh-ed," believing that the Orchestrion machine was about to be set into motion, and acting as proof that the crowd really didn't know what to expect. This still wasn't Metheny's Orchestrion, but another solo "solo"—an improvised, exotic and harpy new-age sounding number, which seemed to test the audience's patience when it became clear to all that the rest of the fanfare wasn't going to join in. Another guitar switch, and this time the crowd didn't know how to react; the guitar was too plain looking. More proof? This was his Orchestrion guitar.

Metheny didn't lay out the fireworks all at once. The only accompaniment to his first Orchestrion-backed piece, set to "Unity Village," from his iconic Bright Size Life (ECM, 1976), was a castanets contraption marking time. His second Orchestrion piece—an improvised number—finally introduced the full-array of visible instruments, which included a Yamaha Disklavier piano, marimba, bottles, synthesizer, and a mix of percussion instruments. The piece sounded like generic jazz, and never really managed to take off; the crowd's attention, which had perked with the first Orchestrion piece, seemed to hum with disillusionment by the end of the second. Was that really it, the Orchestrion?

Before anyone had time to really ponder the question, unexpectedly, the curtain was swiftly raised, a conceptual art-like montage containing a vast array of instruments revealed, and the crowd burst with stupefaction. Madly impressive; a veritable instrument fetishist's fantasy minus the wind instruments. A man, a guitar, and one hell of a complex machine. Metheny glowed with that extremely infectious excitement, energy, and pride of a young child at play with a long-desired, sparkling new toy. A man attempting to recapture his youth? The machine exploded to life.

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