(Birmingham, AL – October 2) “Magic” really is the best description for Pat Metheny’s Orchestrion travelling circus that rolled into Aly Stephens Center in Birmingham on Friday night.
Rather than just turning on all the bell and whistle right out of the gate, Metheny allowed the anticipation of the spectacle about to unfold to brew just a bit.
He started the evening off with rather quiet solo guitar renditions of his classic “James”, then two songs from the album he recorded with pianist Brad Mehldau, “Make Peace” and “The Sound of Water”, featuring a 47-string guitar, which looked like something out of the Star Wars bar scene.
The huge red curtain that covered his accompaniment shortly after lifted, revealing a wall of drums, cymbals, guitars, percussive instruments and an accordion that looked like organized disorder of a basement much like the one Metheny would describe later, which held his grandfather’s player piano, the inspiration for the modern musical art sculpture, to which the audience of some 400 or so were witness.
Metheny and the kinetic mechanism launched into several tunes in the high-energy Orchestrion Suite. It was quite the visual spectacle with little bluish lights of the solenoid devices flashing on each instrument as it burst with energy necessary to produce the required action.
At several points Metheny thanked the audience for coming and tried explaining how the whole apparatus worked, something that proved a challenge even for the self-described musical geek. He demonstrate with his feet to play notes one of the mechanized guitars even as he was holding another guitar in his hands, and later how he could get the vibes or piano to accompany the notes he played on the fretboard of his guitar. performing an improvised piece, which most guitarist would consider a completed composition, to demonstrate how he uses his feet to play various instruments in the “band”.
The rest of the set was rounded out by pieces from Metheny’s Secret Story recording, including, “Tell Her You Saw Me” and the title track. In response to a rousing standing ovation from the audience, he performed an encore version of “Stranger In Town” from We Live Here. Several bows later, he rushed off the stage, as his road crew hurriedly disconstructed the musical sculpture to hit the road and make it to Louisville, Kentucky to set it all up again for the next night’s performance.
That it all can function together so well on a nightly basis is mind-boggling. The experience of seeing it in action was like watching a mad scientist control some droid he invented a laboratory, and the creature we saw was very much “alive”. But what one realizes at some point in the process watching it work, is that Pat Metheny really is the machine, but one with heart and soul.