Live albums are such fragile things, aren’t they? I mean, under the performer’s swagger, the stacks of Marshalls, and even the sometimes egregious overdubbing to mask imperfections and gaffes, very often one is left with inferior product, or at least not comparable to the original slick studio versions of the songs presented. That is why there are very few truly great live albums.
Most live recordings are of the throwaway variety: substandard greatest hits packages vomited up in order to appease record companies in lieu of actual studio content; or a means of promotional self-aggrandizement by performers (and once again, in lieu of actual studio recordings); or pirated concert recordings which appear in profusion on YouTube that are, of course, a chance to see a favorite band or performer play live when there is a dearth of anything that is new or of any consequence, musically speaking. Some performers have one great live album in them (such as Deep Purple’s Made in Japan or The Who’s Live at Leeds), some manage more than one (Johnny Cash’s landmarks Live at Fulsom Prison and Live at San Quentin, for instance), while others are all over the place, running from bathetic to brilliant (numerous offerings from Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Frank Zappa, etc.). But it is indeed a rare occurrence for live material to rise above the studio work from whence it was culled.
But first, let’s talk about jazz.
I know, I know — you’re saying to yourself, what’s this old rock dog doing venturing out of his element? Putting on airs, is he, Lovey? Well, you may find it disconcerting, but I have many jazz recordings: from Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, to Dave Brubeck and Charlie Parker, to Return to Forever and Weather Report. And there are certainly many stellar live jazz recordings (Miles Davis’ Live-Evil, Charlie Parker’s Live at Birdland, and Ellington at Newport 1956, to name but a few). However, in this review I am going to be a bit selfish.
The album I am reviewing, Friday Night in San Francisco (1980) with Al DiMeola, John McLaughlin, and Paco DeLucia, is an essential live recording – for guitarists. Now, I don’t care about the abysmal listening habits of the far vaster society-at-large (a public that is agog over Lady Gaga is suspect in any case); but this definitive demonstration of flamenco-laden guitar jazz — with no backing band, superfluous horns, or vocals — is revelatory, and particularly for those thousands of regular Joes (and Janes – we needn’t be discriminatory) who have ever picked up a guitar and dreamed. But if one worries about demographic accessibility, radio-friendliness and droning songs with three or four chord structures, then why in the hell are you listening to jazz in the first place? Or, in any case, why are you reading this review? Stick with Devo, Television, Poison, or whatever drek you swore by in the 1980s. But I digress.
As a longtime guitarist and bar-band blues bludgeoner, all I can tell you is that I am in awe of the technical ferocity, incredible dexterity, and concordant reciprocity by which these three musicians blend and bend. And to make this album all the more intriguing, these virtuoso guitarists are not shredding the old-fashioned way, with the ubiquitous and almost obligatory Stratocaster or Les Paul; on the contrary, they are frying the frets of acoustic guitars! This “unplugged” concert predates the staged versions on MTV by nearly a decade, and Friday Night certainly eclipses anything from that overrated, overblown series, save perhaps the outstanding performance by Eric Clapton. But alas, poor Eric! For all his vaunted “Slowhand” moves, he couldn’t keep up with these three players with a vast quantity of anabolic steroids and an eight ball of coke.
The stunning interplay between de Lucia, DiMeola and McLaughlin alone is worth a studied listen. Paco de Lucia is one of the finest flamenco guitarists in the world, Al DiMeola’s first major band was the legendary Return to Forever (his first band? He was only 21!), and John McLaughlin is himself a legend, having played on Miles Davis’ masterpiece Bitches Brew, as leader of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and also duetting rock fusion with Carlos Santana. It doesn’t get much better. No, it doesn’t get any better at all.
But it is not merely the technical excellence and gaudy displays of frenzied fretwork that sets this album apart; the subtle nuance, ever-changing tone and timbre, and the synchronicity of the trio is breathtaking in its scope and impassioned delivery. As I alluded to previously, the premise of this review (besides my selfishness) is to present a live album wherein the concert performances exceed the studio versions of the songs. Nowhere is this more evident than on “Mediterranean Sundance/Rio Ancho”, originally from DiMeola’s Elegant Gypsy solo album. The version on Elegant Gypsy is certainly a worthwhile listen, but it is staid and conservative in comparison to that found on Friday Night in San Francisco. “Sundance” becomes a mad waltz of a myriad crickets: first one, then two, then a whole ball, swarming, then swirling, then parting in a preternatural line dance beneath the warm summer breezes drifting languidly in from the aqua sea. For Al DiMeola and Paco DeLucia, it is a battle of pick versus pluck, as jazz fusion meets flamenco guitar method, and the variation in styles gives a nice counterpoint between older and newer forms (not to mention more scales than on Godzilla’s bare behind).
Yet this is no sterile exercise in emotionless expertise, the enthusiastic audience is heavily involved throughout, hooting and hollering in delight, adding to the magic of the night. Also, there are dashes of humor intermingled with the good-natured one-upmanship, such as when DiMeola and McLaughlin take a whimsical detour in Chick Corea’s composition “Black Forest” that leads them to play parts of the “Pink Panther” theme and some raunchy 12 bar blues. Further highlights include a spirited duet by McLaughlin and DeLucia on Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti’s “Frevo Rasgado”, and DiMeola’s “Fantasy Suite”, a grand finale in which all three guitarists shoot out the lights and trade finger-blurring volleys. Oh yes, and if that weren’t enough to have you fretting with plectrum envy, there is a studio recording of the haunting “Guardian Angel” which was a precursor to Passion, Grace and Fire, the album that followed their live tour.
I am aware that the term “masterpiece” is thrown about with nauseating regularity in these degenerate days when karaoke cover versions of hit songs sung by members of Glee seemingly hit number one on the Billboard charts every other week, but the improvisational brilliance of Friday Night in San Francisco is a transcendent experience. At least, for this ‘umble guitarist.