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.