Allan Holdsworth: Live in Japan 1984

John Kelman By

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Allan Holdsworth: Live in Japan 1984
The loss of Allan Holdsworth in the spring of 2017 remains the passing of one of the most distinctive and innovative guitarists of the past half century. Born in the U.K in 1946, but moving to the U.S.A. in the early '80s, most who are familiar with Holdsworth's work also know how vastly influential he became, almost from the first moments of his mind-blowing appearance on trumpeter Ian Carr's Belladonna (Vertigo, 1972), but even more so with groups in which he dominated more completely, including relatively short tenures with Soft Machine (1975's Harvest classic Bundled), Gong (1976's Virgin masterpiece Gazeuse!) and British progressive rock super group U.K. (the superb 1978 E.G. debut, U.K.), alongside slightly longer stints with American drummer Tony Williams' New Lifetime (most notably on its 1975 Columbia debut, Believe It), and British drummer Bill Bruford's first group as a leader, Bruford (documented in Gonzo Multimedia's 2017 box set, Seems Like a Lifetime Ago).

Sadly, however, the very qualities that made Holdsworth's distinct language and approach to tonal colors resulted in a broader reputation and popular acclaim that slowly eroded over the years, despite the extraordinarily high esteem with which he was held by so many six-stringers, ranging from Kurt Rosenwinkel, John McLaughlin and Pat Metheny to Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani and Dream Theater's John Petrucci. By the time of his too-young passing at age 70, he may have, indeed, been a living legend (with an assured spot in the history of his instrument) to those who knew of him and still tried to follow him, but the popular acclaim and commercial success that largely eluded him from the mid-'80s on meant that he passed away far less known than the household name he truly deserved to be.

2017's aptly titled, career-spanning box set, The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever (Manifesto) served as a terrific summation as Holdsworth initially focused on electric (and, occasionally, acoustic) guitar but, later, added other instruments to his arsenal, including baritone guitars and the unwieldy Synthaxe guitar synth. That said, it also highlighted the almost pathological perfectionism that plagued (and seemed to relentlessly intensify over time) Holdsworth throughout his career. One need look no further than the fact that his final studio group recording, the exceptional Sixteen Men of Tain (Gnarly Geezer), was released in 2000 (and reissued in 2003, with two additional tracks, by Globe Music), with Holdsworth working on (but never completing) a follow-up in the seventeen years that followed.

Why was this so? Because Holdsworth's intensely self-critical bent and perfectionist tendencies made it literally almost impossible for him to actually like anything he did. And it's a shame; later in life, the guitarist could often be heard making brief but revealing introductory live comments like "We'll be playing [insert song title]; let's hope I don't screw it up too much." At a powerful 2005 Festival International Jazz de Montréal performance , to a sold-out house, upon telling the guitarist, backstage after the main set had ended, that the crowd was screaming for more, he replied "do you really think so?"

Such self-effacement, self-criticism and humility would normally be considered endearing qualities, but as he moved through life they increased to the degree that they sadly prevented him from giving his fans—new and longtime—the very thing they desired: some new music.

Which makes the release of the archival Live in Japan 1984, the final performance from Holdsworth's first touring band, all the more worthy of celebration. Featuring his final I.O.U. band lineup—singer Paul Williams (with whom Holdsworth had worked in the short-lived, mid-'70s progressive rock outfit Tempest), virtuoso ex-Frank Zappa drummer Chad Wackerman, and then-up-and-coming electric bassist Jimmy Johnson (who'd relatively recently replaced another über-bassist, Jeff Berlin, in I.O.U., was already garnering recognition for his band Flim and the BBs, and would go on, amongst many other things, to become singer/songwriter James Taylor's bassist of choice—the 1984 recording was finally released in 1997 in both audio and video (laserdisc) formats. Due, officially, to business issues (but, no doubt, equally hobbled by Holdsworth's inability to accept a "warts and all" live recording—not that there are any distinctive warts to be found—made thirteen years earlier as release-worthy), the guitarist declared the release "unofficial" and, barring occasional bootleg releases over the years, this example of Holdsworth characteristically fine form has remained in the vaults, gathering dust.

The first thousand copies of Manifesto's remastered CD also include a non-restored (but pro-shot for Japanese TV) DVD with the complete concert (the identical set list) in video format. And while it's likely certain that it's the CD that will get the most play, the DVD clarifies how, even at this relatively early stage in Holdsworth's career as a bandleader, he was already plagued with inner doubts. In the interview clips scattered throughout the DVD, Holdsworth refers to the challenges of playing music that's "too rock for jazz, too jazz for rock"; but he also throws in a revealing comment about, in discussing the complex challenge of performing of his music, not messing it up.

It's no surprise, in fact, that despite playing a great many gigs throughout his life, there are relatively few official live documents to be found. This is particularly unfortunate because, in the last fifteen-to-twenty years, MoonJune Records' Leonardo Pavkovic encouraged the guitarist, whose profile was slowly fading from the public eye, to get back out on the road and revive his fan base, also reissuing numerous back catalog titles to sell at gigs (many had gone out of print).

There is, in fact, nothing else to be found documenting the guitarist's various groups and live material from over nearly 35 years barring the 1991 quartet set Then! (Alternity, 2004), the aptly titled, initially Japan-only trio date All Night Wrong (Sony, reissued by Favored Nations the following year in the U.S.A.), and collaborative Moonjune Records live album Blues for Tony (2009), from the same tour, featuring, alongside Wackerman, fellow New Lifetimer, keyboardist Alan Pasqua and then-Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip, also documented on the 2007 Altitude Digital DVD release, Allan Holdsworth and Alan Pasqua featuring Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Haslip.

Wackerman and Johnson would continue to be regular group choices, alongside a precious few others that included drummer Gary Husband and occasionally, in his final years, Virgil Donati, bassists Haslip and now-deceased Dave Carpenter, and keyboardist Steve Hunt. But moving back almost a quarter century to 1984, by the time Holdsworth was getting ready to retire I.O.U. he'd released just three albums as a leader, all but one possessing ongoing evidence of Holdsworth's relentless perfectionism. Velvet Darkness (CTI, 1976) was, according to the guitarist, taken from recordings made during rehearsals and should never have been released. Road Games (Warner Bros., 1983) was Holdsworth's extraordinary, Grammy Award-nominated major label debut, and his one major shot at commercial success. Largely instigated by Eddie Van Halen, it also turned out to be problematic; intended to be a full-length album, creative differences with executive producer Ted Templeman resulted in Holdsworth completing only 24 minutes, rendering Road Games' release, instead, as a frustratingly short but beyond impressive EP.

Only the superb I.O.U. (Luna Crack/I.O.U., 1983) seemed unproblematic for the guitarist, though it's likely that, were he alive today, he'd have some characteristically self-deprecating things to say about it. More's the pity that Holdsworth was unable to accept what so many others did: empiricals like "best guitarist ever" may have been excessive, as there are certainly many others who have been innovative in different ways but, despite numerous guitarists strongly influenced by him, there truly was only one Allan Holdsworth. And beyond his rarely matched guitar mastery, Holdsworth had fashioned a distinctive and instantly recognizable harmonic vernacular that has been a cornerstone for a great many musicians, including guitarists Alex Machacek and Scott Henderson.

A fourth album was already in the can but wasn't released until 1985, and so the Japanese dates documented by Live in Japan 1984 must have been particularly thrilling for his Oriental audience, as the twelve-song set includes four tracks from I.O.U., four from Road Games and a full four more from the forthcoming final (and, as yet, unheard) I.O.U. album, Metal Fatigue (Enigma), including the sophisticated title track, with its harmonized and metal-tinged riff-driven intro, difficult to execute vocal section and staggering solo passage which, while largely a feature for Holdsworth, also provides brief spots for both Johnson and Wackerman.

Williams may not go down in history as one of rock's greatest vocalists, despite being an emotive singer who favored spare interpretation over the pyrotechnic capabilities possessed by his band mates. Still, given the complex nature of Holdsworth's writing—even when composed with vocals in mind—Williams deserves a lot of props for managing to wind his at-times abstruse vocal lines, like threading a needle, through Holdsworth's distinctive and sophisticated voicings.

Seven of Live in Japan's tracks feature Williams, judiciously spaced throughout the set. His first appearance, on Road Games' exhilarating title track, only comes after the set-opening instrumental from the same record, "Tokyo Dream," which provides early evidence that, despite Holdsworth's incomparable harmonic language, structural complexities and light-speed instrumental mastery, the guitarist was also capable of being thoroughly lyrical, thematically memorable and spare. More may, indeed, have sometimes been more for Holdsworth, but he also knew how to create tension and release by moving from blinding phrases to simple lines and even grippingly held single notes.

"Tokyo Dream" also makes clear, from the get-go, just how simpatico Holdsworth was with Wackerman and Johnson. Johnson has, in the ensuing years, demonstrated that he is as attracted to challenging charts like Holdsworth's as he is to the utterly spare but still requiring of perfect choices and deep feel of James Taylor songwriting, alongside the many others he's accompanied in the studio and on the concert stage. Having cut his teeth with Zappa, Wackerman may have still been challenged by Holdsworth's writing, but he was eminently ready for the gig, replacing original I.OU. drummer (and fellow Brit) Gary Husband when the guitarist relocated to California after acrimoniously parting ways with Warner Bros. As evidenced by the performances on Live in Japan, this was a trio capable of just about anything.

While the interview footage on the DVD reveals little to existing Holdsworth fans, the show itself still has its share of revelations. Perhaps the most notable occurs during the instrumental section of "Road Games," just prior to Holdsworth's thrillingly perfect, wonderfully constructed solo. It's a solo that concisely combines flurries of high velocity ascending and cascading lines (his tendency to the latter another distinctly signature) with soaring phrases of lyrical simplicity (all the more evocative for his visceral use of a whammy bar) and even hints of the swinging syncopation that resulted in his being described by fellow (impressive) guitarist Robben Ford, for many reasons, as "the John Coltrane of the guitar. I don't think anyone can do as much with the guitar as Allan Holdsworth can."

In this brief, through-composed passage of "Road Games," it's impressive to actually see Holdworth's use of two-handed tapping, as he creates dense voicings that sound more like a piano than a guitar. It's also a stunning revelation that, on the album, there was no keyboardist to be found; it was all Holdsworth. Even more surprising, however, is learning that during that section, Williams stands next to the Holdsworth with his thumb barred across the first fret of the band leader's guitar, allowing for Holdsworth's combination of dual-handed tapping and pull-offs to work with open strings raised a semi-tone, thanks to the singer.

In addition to "Road Games" and "Metal Fatigue," Williams is featured on Metal Fatigue's up-tempo "Panic Station," with Holdsworth's arpeggiated intro and outro managed through a seven-fret chordal stretch that would seem impossible but for the DVD evidence; the closest thing to a vocal ballad, "Material Real," Road Games' episodic yet still, by turns, frenzied and relaxed set-closing "Was There?," with its nuclear-powered guitar/drums duo section; I.O.U.'s curiously titled "The Things You See (When You Haven't Got Your Gun)," which likely represents the most challenging vocal of the set, difficult enough with its unusual melody but made even more so through Holdsworth's oblique chordal support, which remains, to this day, a feat of harmonic distinction and inimitable construction; and, from the same album, the more episodic album-closer, "White Line," which feature lyrics written by former Cream lyricist Pete Brown.

The trio stretches out more during the instrumentals, with most tracks exceeding their original studio length, yet never overstaying their welcome. In addition to "Tokyo Dream," Live in Japan 1984 also includes: I.O.U.'s bright-tempo'd "Letters of Marque," a particularly vivid feature for Holdsworth's sustaining legato style; the same album's "Where is One," where Holdsworth switches between shimmering chordal passages and high-octane, overdriven legato lines with frightening rapidity; Metal Fatigue's atmospheric "Home," with a Holdsworth intro so quiet as to encourage leaning forward to hear it, before entering its gorgeously harmonized and melody-rich main section and a particularly evocative guitar solo; and, from the same album, the more buoyant "Devil Take the Hindmost," with a non-vocal but still singable main section that leads into a more open-ended solo section, with Holdsworth in full-on legato, light-speed mode, bolstered by the connected-at-the-hip and paradoxically hard-grooving yet massively virtuosic support of both Johnson and Wackerman.

Both Johnson and Wackerman are afforded plenty of room to move, but at the end of the day this is Holdsworth's show, with the guitarist taking the lion's share of the solo space, though Johnson delivers a particularly strong one on "Panic Station," while Wackerman takes an impressive and extended break on "Letters of Marque." Still, between Wackerman's balance of groove and gymnastics, and Johnson's ability to inject plenty of chordal support when Holdsworth is waxing linear (all while effortlessly anchoring the band throughout its entire set), it's clear that there is plenty of interpretive chemistry happening during every moment of this 75-minute set. More so, it's clear that this is a group that never repeated itself, even during the more structured moments of some of Holdsworth's finest writing at the time.

Inspired by Coltrane, Holdsworth was constantly driven to achieve a legato tone that lacked the intrinsic attack of his instrument, and became increasingly successful over the years. Still, it could be argued that his tone on his later work, as impressive as it was, became a bit texturally sterile. Live in Japan 1984 also renders crystal clear that, while Holdsworth's ability to transcend the natural attack of his guitar was already in full bloom, he still possessed plenty of the punch, bite and bends that made it a far more visceral experience.

With wonderfully remastered audio and, for those first thousand, a revelatory video as well, the official release of Live in Japan 1984 may well be long overdue. Still, with Holdsworth now passed and his estate possessed of less pathological perfectionism while, at the same time, clearly dedicated to only sourcing and releasing music that will help further Holdsworth's reputation as a musician truly like no other, let's hope that other archival live releases will soon find their way into Manifesto's release schedule.

Track Listing

CD: Tokyo Dream; Road Games; White Line; Panic Station; Letters of Marque; Home; Devil Take the Hindmost; Material Real; Metal Fatigue; Where is One; The Things You See (When You Haven’t Got Your Gun); Was There? DVD: Tokyo Dream; Road Games; White Line; Panic Station; Letters of Marque; Home; Devil Take the Hindmost; Material Real; Metal Fatigue; Where is One; The Things You See (When You Haven’t Got Your Gun); Was There?


Allan Holdsworth: guitar; Paul Williams: vocals; Jimmy Johnson: bass; Chad Wackerman: drums.

Album information

Title: Live in Japan 1984 | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Manifesto

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