The DVD release of Rock Goes to College (Winterfold, 2006), by drummer Bill Bruford's late-1970s band Bruford, was greeted with considerable excitement. Featuring Hatfield and the North/National Health keyboardist Dave Stewart and über-bassist Jeff Berlin, the group only played a couple of live dates with original guitarist Allan Holdsworth, who left shortly afterwards and was replaced by "The Unknown John Clarke. One of those performances was recorded by the BBC for television broadcast and, while it's a scant 42-minutes long, it represents a high water mark for the British progressive/fusion scene of that timeor, for that matter, any other.
In response to demand for an audio-only version, Rock Goes to College makes its appearance on CD and, naturally, possesses the same strengths and weaknesses of the DVD. The sound is good, not great, but certainly on a par with (or slightly better than) The Bruford Tapes (Winterfold, 1979), culled from a U.S. radio show performance with Clarke on guitar.
Singer Annette Peacock, who appeared on Bruford's debut, Feels Good to Me (Winterfold, 1978), is the weak link in a very strong chain. While her sultry, up-front-in-the-mix vocals on Feels Good to Me provided a distinctive complexion and vibe, here her hit-and-miss pitch detracts from the near-perfection of the rest of the group. The advantage of the audio CD is that one needn't watch her unsuccessful attempts at on-stage theatrics.
Peacock aside, what both versions of Rock Goes to College demonstrate is that, while the music is tightly structured, this was still a band with serious improvisational chops. It was also a group with a collective identity that, while capitalizing on the remarkable strengths of each member, became something more than the sum of its parts when coming together.
Holdsworth's remarkable speed and visceral legato lines had already gained considerable attention by the time of this recording. As years passed, his perfectionist tendencies would sometimes get in the way, but here he's less deliberative and far more excitingcharacteristics that have thankfully returned to his playing on the recent Allan Holdsworth and Alan Pasqua Featuring Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Haslip (Altitude, 2007) DVD.
Stewart, whose unique harmonic approach was no small influence on Holdsworth, would soon leave the progressive community, and his innovative work here suggests his early departure was all the more a shame. Berlin, who continues to record infrequently (most recently Aneurythms, M.A.J., 2007), remains an equally innovative, albeit largely overlooked, player.
But here, on a set culled from Feels Good to Me and its follow-up, One of a Kind (Winterfold, 1979), Brufordthe group and the drummeris in top form. At a time when boundaries existed to be broken, Bruford was blending complex writing with muscular soloing and art rock intentions. The audio release of Rock Goes to College is an important document of that time permitting enjoyment of the music away from one's television set or PC.
Personnel: Allan Holdsworth: guitar; Dave Stewart: keyboards; Jeff Berlin: bass; Bill Bruford: drums, percussion; Annette Peacock: vocals (6, 7).