Al Di Meola – Live @ Variety Playhouse

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After twenty plus years as a fan, it’s a treat to have the opportunity to see Al Di Meola two years in a row.  Having moved well beyond his jazz fusion years, I still IMG_1330thought it worthwhile to bring my kids (and my son’s friend) to this show to see a phenomenal guitarist even though I wasn’t certain that they would care for the music.

So, you just never know.  We arrived early, buying tickets when the box office opened and, from appearances, none too early based on the number of printed tickets remaining on the counter.  A line had already formed, a full hour before the doors opened.  So, we set off through Little Five Points, Atlanta’s alternative neighborhood, for a quick head-spinning tour for the kids and a Little Five Points Pizza for all of us.  IMG_4281This is the second time I’ve been there, and the atmosphere exudes the “hole in the wall” approach that I prefer for pizza (or barbeque).  The coziness, the accumulation of odd things on display, and, most importantly, the aroma of years of pizzas saturating the fabric of the building figure prominently in my appreciation.  But, I had to wonder about the bloodshot evil eye that overlooked our table… would it mess with our evening?

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Nah.

Al Di Meola remains one of the most engaging and conversational musicians during a concert.  He spoke at good length before playing, and he interacted frequently with the crowd during the show.  This establishes an unusual measure of good will, in his case, even before the concert begins.  There are many reasons to see a concert, and one of the unspoken expectations is that the audience generally wants to like the artist, not just the music.  Yet, so many artists fail to make any attempt to connect. 

Di Meola returned with the same band that toured last year, World Sinfonia, less keyboardist/accordionist Fausto Beccaslossi who had provided an instrumental foil.  Therefore, this performance provided even more opportunities for guitar solos, which is, after all, why people come to see him.

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He began with at least several songs from his new CD, Pursuit of Radical Rhapsody, but I’m not familiar enough with his music to name the songs.  Styles varied, from Latin, flamenco, classical and jazz, often within the structure of a song.  He played his acoustic/electric guitar, which, with a switch, provided a completely different voice to each piece.  His fingers are amazing to watch, both for speed and general dexterity as they move across the frets.

Al Di Meola, in my experience, is the only virtuoso guitarist that uses sheet music during his concerts.  I’d imagine there were a few in the front rows a bit put off by the obstructed view.  Plan ahead folks.  He plays so many notes and such exotic (my son’s word) scalesIMG_4306, it’s understandable to have a reference.   His intricate guitar work was, on the one hand, amazing, yet on the other it was often disruptive to an overall groove – at times seemingly speed for the sake of speed.  On occasions when he played off of long time percussionist Gumbi Ortiz, or otherwise when his left shoulder dipped into a rhythmic movement, the sections were more melodious and accessible.  In other words, when he feels the music, I tend to like it better.

In the second set, he ventured into, I think, a medley of songs from his earlier recordings, including the jazz fusion work which brought him initial acclaim in the 1970’s.  In that playing his electric guitar brings him to his feet, it also largely freed him of reading sheet music, leaving him to feel the music.  In short, when he plays guitar from memory, chances are the song has a more appealing groove.

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The encore included three songs, opening with an acoustic song offered to those suffering in aftermath of the Japanese earthquake.  He then delivered extraordinary performances of “Race with the Devil on a Spanish Highway” and “Elegant Gypsy,” the former of which he had not played for 20 years.  In terms of familiarity and accessibility, he closed on a very high note.

An Al Di Meola concert is a sure bet for an enjoyable evening, regardless of musical preferences.  For those fearing a “boring jazz concert,” this is more of a celebration of musical styles by a band that is a joy to watch.  In that two 17 year old boys and a 19 year old young lady enjoyed music which was new to them, the evidence is strong.

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A free download of the first song from his new CD is available currently HERE (lower left hand of page).

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