Although he has recorded a whopping number of Grammy-winning albums and performed thousands of shows all over the world, Pat Metheny remains an unassuming musician enamored with the sound of his guitar. On Saturday at the Universal Amphitheater, he walked onstage while the house lights were still on and proceeded to play a couple of solo numbers as a prologue of sorts to his own band, the Pat Metheny Group.
This unusual introduction quickly established a cozy mood while sending a clear message to the capacity audience: A Metheny performance is all about the music, without the accoutrements that usually accompany a concert by a famous musician.
Although his virtuoso guitar technique is beyond reproach, Metheny’s love for supple melodies and the occasional touch of New Age mood bring him dangerously close to Muzak territory.
These tendencies are particularly evident in PMG’s new album, “Speaking of Now,” which suffers from a relative lack of direction. Previous PMG efforts had a gripping concept to them. “We Live Here” (1995), for instance, was all about the transformation of hackneyed drum-machine patterns into a framework for sophisticated jazz improvisation, while 1997’s “Imaginary Day” explored the adventurous soundscapes of progressive rock.
“Speaking of Now,” on the other hand, recapitulates Metheny’s obsession with pastoral moods and tricky time signatures, while presenting a new lineup that includes the multi-instrumental chops of Cameroonian singer Richard Bona, the avant-garde trumpet musings of Cuong Vu and the clave-informed drumming patterns of Mexico’s Antonio Sanchez.
Clearly energized by the presence of these new players, Metheny added verve and passion to even the most tepid bits from the new album, which occupied half of the three-hour show. Better yet, the group shone when revisiting the old classics. Riveting versions of 1984’s “First Circle” and 1997’s “The Roots of Coincidence” suggested this lineup soon might lead the guitarist to new aesthetic heights.