For those of a certain age and musical bent, recollecting certain life events is made easier by pointing to release dates of Pat Metheny albums. Has it really been nearly four decades since I was a college freshman, blasting 1979’s American Garage, with its rock-edged textures and guitar bravado (and inimitable Airstream-park cover), from my dorm room?
During that same period, I caught the Pat Metheny Group at an outdoor show on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. And I’ve seen nearly all of his tours since, including memorable performances by his trio with drummer Antonio Sanchez and Christian McBride, and his five-piece Unity Group with Sanchez, saxophonist Chris Potter and others.
The latter group, three years ago, stopped at the beautifully appointed, waterfront Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. This same hall hosted Metheny’s Feb. 1 show with his latest traveling band, a mostly acoustic outfit with Sanchez, upright bassist Linda Oh and Brit-born pianist Gwilym Simcock.
As expected, it was an immensely satisfying performance. Metheny, in collaboration with his band and sometimes alone on stage, again made a joyful noise with his various guitars, stretching out on 18 or so tunes covering nearly every phase of his career, and cranking up the performance intensity for nearly two and a half hours.
Metheny opened unaccompanied, seated on a stool, and proceeded to strum, pluck and tap his harp-like 42-string Pikasso guitar before bringing out the band for the sweet, familiar melody and loping groove of “So May It Secretly Begin,” from the Pat Metheny Group’s Grammy-winning “Still Life (Talking),” released 30 years ago.
Several other gems from the Group’s catalog were offered, including “Have You Heard,” its melody imbued with folkish strains; “Better Days Ahead”; “James,” which opened up for a section showcasing Sanchez’s relentlessly inventive work and rhythmic mettle; “Six and Eleven,” featuring guitar synth; “Farmer’s Trust,” with Metheny opening alone on acoustic guitar; and the closing “Song for Bilbao.”
Oh, playing upright on all except the show’s closing tune, provided an earthy cushion for the group, and her elegant, stair-stepping solo work took center stage on “Unity Village” and on a gorgeous version of Jobim’s “How Insensitive,” a duet with Metheny. The band took a more sonically aggressive approach on the uptempo burner “The Red One,” from the guitarist’s 1994 collaboration with John Scofield; the leader used the occasion to trade eights, and then fours, with Sanchez.
Metheny, as per his custom, gave plenty of room to his bandmates. Simcock turned in an impressive unaccompanied introduction on “Tell Her You Saw Me,” and made a simpatico sparring partner with the guitarist on a duet version of “Phase Dance.” And Metheny and Sanchez went it alone on a wide-open take on “Question and Answer,” replete with synth-guitar playing and dub-sounding effects.
One of the evening’s most memorable segments arrived during the encore, when Metheny began, alone, with an acoustic medley including “September Fifteenth,” “As It Is,” “Antonia,” “Minuano (Six Eight),” “Last Train Home,” “The Sun in Montreal” and “This Is Not America.” Was the inclusion of that last tune done in homage to David Bowie, its co-writer, or was it a subtle political comment? Both? Or neither, because Metheny has been playing that medley, with those pieces, for a decade or so? You decide.