Saturday, April 12, 2008

Gig Review: Allan Holdsworth Band

Lucerna Music Bar (AghaRTA Jazz Festival)
6th April 2008

Allan Holdsworth is one of the modern masters of the guitar, with a list of recordings and collaborations as long as one of his trademark liquid solos. A fusioneer who started out in Progressive Rock, he has worked with Bill Bruford, Soft Machine, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jack Bruce, and many other greats. Experimental and experimenting, Holdsworth is revered amongst those who take their guitar appreciation seriously.

The Lucerna Music Bar is revered by those who like cheap beer and things that smell of smoke. A circular stage, surrounded by chairs and tables that are awarded on a first-come-first-sit basis, dominates this lovably shabby cellar. Serious jazz types mix it with long-haired experimental rock aficionados. A small group of people who look like liberals sneakily eat a sandwich they've smuggled in and nurse one small bottle of fruit juice between them. The lights go down and we’re ready for some hardcore Holdsworth action. And then Jeff Aug steps out, with an acoustic six-string, and hammers seven shades of shale out of it.

Support acts usually have only one purpose and that is to suck. They’re the ugly friend you go to the bar with when you’re out to score. They’re the bad stats you give the boss before you present him with the report on how you are going to save the company. They have a place in life, a rung on the ladder, and they’d better not blow the main act out of the water.

It is a brave lead guitarist who has Jeff Aug open for him. Playing what can only be described as high-speed country funk, he shreds his way up and down the strings with breathtaking speed. He also provides his own percussion, striking the body of the instrument hard enough to sound like a bass drum. This is extreme acoustic guitar, and extremely good, rendering the audience unusually silent.

After Aug’s set, and more time for beer, it was the turn of Allan Holdworth and his trio, with Jimmy Johnson on bass and Chad Wackerman on drums. Allan himself took to the stage with a guitar synthesiser; a small enough instrument anyway but almost comically tiny when compared with his enormous hands. If you’ve ever wondered how he gets those chords, giant hands help!

They blasted off at one hundred miles per hour, and stayed there. And this was the problem. Three virtuoso musicians. Three soloists. And nobody leaving any space. Wackerman was the main offender: he is a brilliant and talented drummer, but he was far too loud in the mix and he would never shut up. Instead of being able to concentrate and savour Allan’s brilliant playing it was a battle to focus on the sound. He was almost pathologically frightened of leaving anything unhit.

Cacophony is good but only as part of a contrast with calm, and it was this contrast that the gig lacked. There was no counterpoint, no variation. There was no tension and release. The band was always so cranked up that it had nowhere to go for emphasis; no extra gear to shift into to hammer home the point.

The few quieter moments were dominated by Holdsworth’s electronic soundscapes, lushly textured and assiduously crafted walls of sound driven through delays and effects. But these were few and far between, before the assault started again. As well as being aurally interesting they provided a sense of relief and a time to recover before the next bombastic free-for-all.

It was like watching a great artist painting only in one colour. The technical skills were beyond reproach but something was missing. Maybe this was not a good night, or maybe it was the house mix that nominated the drums as a lead instrument. Or maybe constant cacophony was the aim.

These are three fantastic musicians, but unless you’re particularly dedicated to one of them, or extreme experimental fusion floats your boat, then you may be disappointed. However if you get a chance to see Jeff Aug you should do so!


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