Pat Metheny with his Unity Band, including drummer Antonio Sanchez, right,… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
It probably goes without saying that Pat Metheny is a one-of-a-kind sort of guitarist.
Able to follow his sometimes jaw-dropping capabilities through stylistic tributaries of flamenco, classical and a supercharged mix of progressive rock and folk, Metheny opened his Monday night show at the Broad Stage in a way that immediately established his credentials for the uninitiated.
Metheny began seated alone with his custom-made Pikasso guitar, a longtime musical companion that looks a bit like an unholy offspring of a lute, harp and maybe three acoustic guitars.
Working across the 42 strings criss-crossing its body, Metheny began with a blend of patiently explored classical guitar that gave way to shimmering strums, resulting in something that flirted with lush if somewhat sterile New Age. Watching him perform was as much an act of musical exploration as a physical one. How does he play that thing? And what on Earth made him want to try?
It wasn't the first time such questions would come up during the night, but much of the show featured a more conventional focus in Metheny's new Unity Band, which features Dave Holland sideman Chris Potter on saxophone, fiery young bassist Ben Williams and the drummer for Metheny's recent trio, Antonio Sánchez. Able to follow Metheny's every whim, the band worked a propulsive groove on "Come and See," which featured a bedrock foundation from Williams that gave Potter and Metheny ample room to run.
"New Year" carried a more romantic feel punctuated by Metheny's Spanish-shaded guitar and a knotty saxophone melody by Potter, but the more manic "Roofdogs" was less successful. With Metheny turning to a guitar layered with an electronic effect resembling a synthetic cross between an electric piano and violin, the group sped into a burning take on Mahavishnu Orchestra-era fusion. As the song raced to a furious finish through an assortment of fleet-fingered twists, the results felt almost oppressively virtuosic, full of such exhaustive technical skill that some of the humanity went missing.
The notion reached its fullest yet most oddly fascinating expression with "Signals," a song that reintroduced Metheny's Orchestrion Project. An enormous, robot-assisted one-man band of sorts that allowed the guitarist to trigger an array of sounds using electronics, the project yielded an album and a logistically challenging tour in 2010.
Unveiled to a scattering of giddy applause as if a special guest had been introduced, the mind-boggling collection of noisemakers and instruments on an array of wooden shelves and racks held a charmingly handmade, almost steampunk aesthetic. Standing with his guitar over a bank of pedals, Metheny triggered a maze of backing rhythms on various water-filled glass jars, a rack of vibraphones, cymbals, chimes and even a self-squeezing accordion in a madly ambitious setup that would've made Rube Goldberg proud.
With each instrument lighting up as it was struck, it was impossible not to be filled with a sense of wonder at the contraption, even more so as the band gradually joined Metheny and his mad scientist's array of percussion patterns. As Metheny sampled and looped his guitar to join a sprawling piece with flashes of Steve Reich and world beat, his band followed with something looser that slowly took hold of the song as it came together, surged ahead and came to rest.
After that kind of display, a solo acoustic encore featuring Metheny on a conventional six-string felt almost perverse, but his efforts again proved that the curious meeting of musicians and their machines at its best creates its own kind of unity.
Pat Metheny Unity Band plays Segerstrom Hall, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Fri., 7:30 p.m. $25-$72 (714) 556-2787 www.scfta.org.
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