Al Di Meola - Live at Variety Playhouse

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A high school friend loaned me several Al Di Meola records, which were great diversions from what I listened to at the time.  However, it wasn't until I heard Tour de Force Live playing in a record store that I had the "aha" moment for his music.  Latin influences notwithstanding, this was a jazz fusion album that rocked while risking, it seemed, any number of missed notes from the pure speed of the guitarist and the performance demands of an instrumental show.  But it sounded great.

As amazing a performance as this was with the electric guitar, I soon discovered Friday Night in San Francisco, which was also a live acoustic recording, trading in a full band for two additionally tremendously talented and fleet fingered guitarists, John McLaughlin and Paco DeLucia.  It was (and remains...) amazing stuff.  His studio albums, however, never fully captured my interest.  Usually, it's an artists live recordings that disappoint, not the other way around.

Fast forward almost 30 years, and I read that he would be playing at my favorite venue.  Awesome!  With my work buddy on board... well, wait a minute.  Of all things, an after school spelling contest for his son popped up unexpectedly and nixed his opportunity.  Well then, with my son in tow... what? So what if it's a school night?  Come on! It's a concert!

Whatever. I went by myself because I really wanted to see this show.  Fortuitously, I met Dave, visiting from south Florida and who had seen Di Meola back when I first heard his albums, and Edgar, whose wife wasn't up to the event at the last minute.  The conversation as we waited was great, and they made for a very suitable replacement to my heretofore reliable concert buddy and my son.  C'mon people.  Get your priorities straight.

With a Dogfish Head IPA in hand, and kudos to Variety for stocking their bar with a varied selection of beers, my fill-in buddies and I eagerly awaited the show.  Part of the discussion was about an article indicating that the decline of jazz stations in the U.S. had negatively impacted Di Meola's audience.  Di Meola added in an interview that he was considering foregoing the U.S. permanently in favor of the larger response from European articles.  He then added "final U.S. tour" to his website, and it made us thankful for us to have the opportunity to see him. 

One thing I love about Variety Playhouse is that if you get there early, you get great seats.  We ended up on about the fifth row, in plastic chairs positioned up front in an area usually left open for people to stand in front of the stage.  Jazz fusion doesn't beg the most energetic crowd, and having stood for many concerts there, I was pleased at the prospects of enjoying the evening primarily seated.

To further delay my "review" of the concert, I can't help but mention the guy who sat in front of us who saved four seats for almost an hour.  At first, I admired his patience defending inquiry after inquiry as to the availability of seats.  But, after a while, you just have to laugh at people who arrive with the venue almost full and become visibly disappointed to find out that the empty seats up front somehow weren't magically available for deserving late arrivals such as themselves.  Get a grip, people.

On with the show. 

I was prepared to enjoy Di Meola's music while not particularly liking him.  I watched the video of his 2009 tour with Return to Forever, the jazz group in which he started his career, and he seemed to grandstand a bit (to which he's entitled) and to play to the band much more than the audience (perhaps necessary, if each note wasn't canned).  Most of what I had seen of him before might be characterized as a fairly intense presence, and I really didn't anticipate him being very personable.

From the very beginning, this turned out not to be the case.  He introduced himself and his band with great warmth and humor, sat on his chair, and launched into a new piece that as yet is unreleased.  In fact, the first three songs were new, and each required the band members to read sheet music (a first time I've seen this at a concert) as they played.  Each had great melodies, furiously paced sections, and stylistic variety.  And it was very obvious that the band was enjoying themselves as well as the audience's reaction.

The band, World Sinfonia, is considered his "acoustic" band, with drums, stand up bass, rhythm acoustic guitar, accordion (in lieu of keyboards), percussion, and Di Meola on acoustic/electric and electric guitars. Except for a rather invisible performance by his rhythm guitarist, each artist seemed to greatly enjoy performing, and the audience was very appreciative throughout the two hour set.

He seemed to relish interaction with two of his bandmates.  One is his percussionist, Gumbi Ortiz, who has played with him over 20 years, and his abundant personality fills somewhat of a Paul Shaffer role as an amiable focal point in the breaks, if not during his lead sections. 

I don't know that I would necessarily look forward to hearing an accordion, but Fausto Beccalossi played it in a tones that suited the music very well (as opposed to carnival music), and judging from his facial expressions, is at one with his instrument.  He and Di Meola played off each other frequently.

Obviously, Di Meola is the heart of the show.  He favors Ovation guitars, which offer perhaps a bright acoustic sound, but with the flip of a switch to his effects pedals, the same guitar sounds amazingly different as he powers through more aggressive tones in the music.  Di Meola's left hand is always moving, regardless of the speed at which he picks.  But whether in rhythm or lead, watching his fingers glide along the fretboard, hammering on or off, sliding, and confidently gliding from  one chord or note to the next is just amazing.  

Another observation is that, as compared with the footage from the more improvisational jazz departures on Return to Forever's reunion video, Di Meola appeared much more relaxed and in his element with his band and his own music.  The closer was, I think, "Egyptian Danza," played to a crowd that was finally invited to get on its feet and celebrate what they had been hearing.

As for future US tours, he waved goodnight saying "See you next time, Atlanta."  Whether this was a rote closing comment or earnest remains to be seen and heard.  I can't find that his website currently mentions the finality of his U.S. tours, either.  Maybe Atlanta made a difference.

For the record, Di Meola has one of the most beautiful guitars I've seen. 


Pictures from the concert can be seen by clicking > HERE <.

"Egyptian Danza," from a concert in 2007:

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