Metheny Mécanique and Karaoke Koncerts

What’s the difference between a concert and Karaoke?

The specter of plug ‘n’ play concerts has reared its pre-wired head again. I’ve been confronted with another spate of contrasting concerts.  On the one hand, there’s music that’s played live and in the moment and on the other, music that’s been packaged and frozen.   In the latter case, a live performance consists of defrosting the material while a lone musician solos  over the top.  This is especially hard for me to confront because most of that music is the stuff I love and have supported for over 35 years.

Pat Metheny & Orchestrion

Many electronic concerts have become little more than karaoke. A musician walks on stage, sits in front of one or two laptops, maybe a keyboard, hits start and spends most of the concert staring at a computer screen watching his composition slide by. Occasionally he might play some synth pads or even a solo line, but by and large, it’s all as fresh as a Swanson TV dinner.

Proponents of laptop performances will argue that with programs like Ableton Live, they can interact and change the music in real time. And I have seen this happen. Ulrich Schnauss gave a musically remarkable performance in the Echoes Living Room and at World Cafe Live a couple of years ago. His concert versions of music from Goodbye were radically different from the album. Yet even throughout this performance, I kept thinking, “Man, this would be so much more powerful if he had a couple of guitarists, keyboard player, bassist and drums.”  Canned music will never have the impact of a true live performance.    That was brought home by four  recent concerts.

Robert Rich @ Echoes

Both Spyra and Robert Rich recently played performances in Philadelphia including live Echoes sessions. I’ve been singing the praises of Robert Rich for a long time now. His album Ylang was an Echoes CD of the Month. But in concert, Rich is essentially doing a Music Minus One set, playing flutes and lap steel guitar over his elaborate, but completely pre-programmed backing tracks.

Spyra @ Echoes

At least Rich  brings along some real synthesizers that are triggered.  Wolfram Spyra pretty much left  his set to a couple of Mac computers and a couple of keyboards over which he noodled solos.    Bass lines pound, drums ricochet, chords lays down heavenly pathways and synthesizers shoot melodies off the rafters of St. Mary’s Church at The Gatherings,  but the only musician on stage stares mutely at a computer screen.

Artists like this make a pretense of live performance, but it’s barely a step above playing a CD on stage.   JJ, a band from Europe doesn’t even make that pretense.  On their CD, No. 3, they conjure up  a haunting brand of electronica with Elin Kastlander‘s smokey alto voice intoning echoes from the abyss.  In concert they sound just like their CD because the only thing live is Kastlander, who stood stoically still,  her thick blonde hair cascading over her shoulders, while she sang in front of their full backing tracks.  A couple of times, Joakim Benon, (I think), would come on stage, strum a guitar aimlessly and hug Kastlander before exiting. It was creepy, especially when the Enyaesque choirs of “Let Go” came forth, but there was only Eastlander, barely moving her lips.   There were times I thought she might be lip-syncing. When did alt-rock concerts become a Solid Gold performance? If you’re gonna do that, at least bring on the dancers.

I don’t know JJ’s story, but Sprya and Robert Rich argue that their music is too complex for one person to play live and that it’s not financially viable to bring a band.   I would argue that your live music should be scaled to what you’re capable of live.  If that means a solo set, then scale it to what you can actually play live without backing.    If you really need a band but you’re not committed enough to go to the expense or find like-minded players willing to suffer for your art, ,  then perhaps you shouldn’t be playing live concerts at all. Hundreds of rock groups scuffle through tiny clubs to make their art.   How is it different for these electronic acts?    A recording is one thing, a live performance is something else entirely.

Metheny's Orchestrion

Which brings me to Pat Metheny. He’s built his reputation on live performances presented in myriad permutations, the most popular being the Pat Metheny Group.    For this past year he’s been touring his Orchestrion concert. The Orchestrion is a mechanical orchestra with an exploded drum kit, pianos, vibes, marimba, glockenspiel, electric bass, robot guitars, bottle organs and more. Metheny can control much of this monster with his guitar, doubling lines on vibes and marimba, setting tempos on percussion and sometimes just playing piano with his guitar.  (Hear Metheny talk about the Orchestrion here.)

But the arrangements of the “Orchestrion Suite” are complex, as complex as the music on his previous Pat Metheny Group album, The Way Up and there is no way he can do that live no matter how fast he can trigger the Orchestrion instruments.    Instead, computers had the launch codes for much of the music.   What was a little deceptive was an improvisation the guitarist played to end the show before encores. He said it was a demonstration of how the system works. He played a guitar riff, looped it, played another riff and looped that in sync and started adding sounds from his orchestrion that were clearly triggered by his guitar.  The improvised work built up to a glorious climax with Metheny playing a classic guitar synth solo at the end.

The thing is, that’s not what he was doing during the rest of the concert. There was no live looping. The five compositions played from the Orchestrion album  were obviously pre-programmed arrangements and the only improvisation was in Metheny’s guitar solos. Those guitar solos were great and beyond the ken of most electronic musicians to match, but much of the rest was canned, albeit, in elaborate if not bizarre fashion with his stage-filling Orchestrion beast.

The lines of live vs pre-programmed are less clear with Pat Metheny.  The Orchestrion is a conceptual art project as much as a music performance.  He’s not trying to replicate a band.   It’s an amazing feat of technology and tenacity, and Metheny made it all appear effortless, but ultimately, there was something missing from the stage, which needed either 10 Pat Methenys or ten other musicians to effect his vision.

Jimmy Lavalle of Album Leaf @ Echoes

These concerts contrasted sharply with two other recent shows, The Album Leaf and Jonsi. Both shows were full of live musicians, and even though there was little improvisation, the performances were in the moment, energized by the mood on stage and the audiences.   The Jonsi show at the Electric Factory was transcendent, visually and musically.  The Sigur Ros singer/guitarist created a theatrical work that was  meticulously choreographed,  yet ragingly intense.    The Album Leaf gave a powerhouse show in the sweltering heat of the First Unitarian Church and came into the Echoes living room the next day, stripped down their live set-up to the basics, and still sounded amazing. Yes, they do use some glitch backing tracks, but by and large, it’s six musicians, in communion. It’s what happens when real musicians are playing live.

Music isn’t pure.  Technology pushes limits and especially with DJ and dance culture,  performance concepts that were taboo have fallen.  I don’t think there’s a line to be drawn, but I think I know when it’s been crossed.  So let me ask again:  What’s the difference between a concert and karaoke?

John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

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