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The Peter Sprague Group Plays Pat Metheny scored a direct hit last night at Tango Del Rey in Pacific Beach, reinforcing many of the very ideas that have made Metheny's output such a vital force in modern music over the last 30 years.

The band Sprague assembled to interpret this music could hardly be improved upon, including long-time associates Duncan Moore on drums, Gunnar Biggs on bass and Leonard Patton on vocals--and especially Barnaby Finch on keyboards--who provided a superb harmonic/melodic foil to the guitarist's expressions.

Opening with a medley of "Minuano/ Bright Size Life," the band hit the Metheny book with just the right amount of reproduction versus interpretation. Sprague is a more staccato/ bebop centered guitarist than Metheny, but he nonetheless crafted beautiful personal statements around the themes. Finch responded with a super melodic flurry that channeled the spirit of long-time Metheny collaborator Lyle Mays with spooky effectiveness--providing a keyboard partner that Sprague has never really enjoyed before. Finch was the lynchpin for the success of the entire evening.

Patton joined the group for an ecstatic version of "Have You Heard," his wordless vocals sailing through the complex contours and difficult intervals inherent in the piece. Patton is a force of nature--it's like listening to Ray Charles morphing into Bobby McFerrin--all the soulful guts of the former combined with the athletic acuity and startling range of the latter. It's always a joy to see Sprague's nimble fingers dancing along the fingerboard and Finch ratcheted up the excitement quotient with lightning strike runs and churchy repetitions.

Sprague's songwriting partner, lyricist Randy Phillips created words for many Metheny tunes that didn't have them before--with varying results. Some of the guitarist's melodies are just too strong on their own--adding words or syllables to every note seemed like overkill on "Travels," for instance.

On the other hand, the lyrics enhanced "Better Days Ahead," "Song For Bilbao," and, especially "Are You Going With Me," which was perhaps, the highest point in a night filled with them. Gunnar Biggs was rock-solid, if under-mixed, throughout, and Duncan Moore had several opportunities to demonstrate why he is the most-in-demand drummer in San Diego.

On the excellent, "Americana," inspired romp through "The Fields, The Sky," Sprague's group "went off the chart" of the 4 page arrangement--leaving things wide open for Finch, who eventually pulled a long quote from the Bruce Hornsby pop-hit "That's Just The Way It Is," to inspire waves of laughter and recognition.

There was even an encore-- a beautiful, heart-wrenching reading of "Last Train Home," where everything worked at the highest level, including Patton's angelic wordless vocals, Sprague's off-the-hook guitar synthesis, Moore's uncanny train-track imitation and Finch's joyous keyboard exposition.

Doesn't get much better than this.

Photo by Bonnie Wright

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