story and photos by Christopher Johnson
Akiko Kawamoto, a bank employee from Osaka, took a train for 600 kilometres, waited in line for 5 hours, and took her seat at a table in Blue Note, a cozy basement club in Tokyo with room for about 300 diners.
Noting the chef’s excellent reputation, she ordered pasta (1500 yen) and a cup of tea (500 yen). The club soon filled up. She put away her cutlery, wiped her mouth, and then, suddenly, the world’s greatest living guitar player, Pat Metheny began to perform on stage, directly in front of her.
“It was amazing, the best show ever,” she said, spellbound after one of Metheny’s 12 shows this week at Blue Note. “I still can’t believe it. It was like he was playing for me in my living room.”
Metheny was so close, she could have reached over and played one of the 42 strings on his legendary “Pikasso” guitar. She could have leaned over and untangled the chord between his amp and his gorgeous blond Ibanez signature PM guitar. She could even read his name on his guitar pics.
A few tables over, someone could have spilled their drink into Chris Potter’s saxophone, or nicked his clarinet. There were no roadies, security guards, or photographers between the audience and Metheny’s Unity band, which recently won a Grammy, Metheny’s 20th.
The fans, packing out the Metheny Unity shows night after night, appear flabbergasted. Like Kawamoto, they simply can’t believe they can get this close to Metheny, who has been playing massive outdoor festivals and concert halls since the 1980s when albums such as Offramp, First Circle and Still Life Talking inspired a devout worldwide following that will take the band to Brazil next.
“I really can’t believe this,” says Naoto Sugai, who owns four signature Metheny guitars. “I flew all the way from Osaka this morning to see this. It’s like a dream.”
The organizers in Japan probably could have sold out a show at the Budokan, given Japan’s affection for jazz. Instead, by offering two shows per night, at a 12,000 yen music charge (not including food and drink), they’ve given Metheny’s fans a rare chance at intimacy. Every table seems close to the stage. The sound quality is divine. There’s no distractions of videos or graphics. The band might as well be jamming in a rehearsal studio.
There’s an air of humility to go with the awe-inspiring virtuosity. After the show, Metheny and the band simply walk off the stage and walk between tables through the crowd who stand in applause.
“It’s a very different experience,” explains Kawamoto, who previously saw Metheny at a larger concert hall in Osaka. “It’s live, raw music. You can hear every little thing. You really get a sense of how amazing they are as musicians.”
The group’s tour manager notes, with appreciation, how Japanese audiences are disciplined enough to obey social rules and not hassle their heroes, even if one fan, unable to contain his joy, let out a “whoop” in the midst of a delicate ballad.
Even from my perch on the balcony between the sound and light crew, it seems surreal. Metheny and his Unity band are right there, within chatting distance, and I have to use the silent shutter on my camera to avoid disturbing their concentration on stage.
This is how I often experience my friend’s indie rock bands at clubs in Shibuya. (I myself have played on stage in much bigger venues, such as Tawan Daeng in Bangkok, capacity more than a thousand.) In a cozy club like Blue Note, you can feel a personal connection to the artists. It’s a great way to build the sort of fan loyalty that Japan is famous for. It seems like Metheny, Potter, drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Ben Williams are your friends, and you’ll definitely come back to support them next time they’re in town.