Monday, January 22, 2018

Velvet Darkness (1976, 2017), by Allan Holdsworth

Allan Holdsworth’s unofficial first solo album is far, far better than the legendary master guitarist ever gave it credit for being, proving that the artist certainly was his own worst critic.

Recorded in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, in 1976 when Holdsworth was 29 going on 30 (and I was a 3-year-old toddler driving my parents insane across the river in Washington Heights, Manhattan), this historically important rarity provides a window into the past for a unique look at a genius in the making (at least in terms of being a solo artist).

Even at this early, nascent stage, Holdsworth delivers dazzling displays of virtuosity on electric and acoustic guitars and violin, backed by a spry musical ensemble including Alan Pasqua on keyboards, Alphonso Johnson on bass, and Narada Michael Walden on drums.

While the album doesn’t have the glossy, high-tech sheen of Holdsworth’s forward-looking work from the 1980s and beyond, it stands as a masterpiece of punk funk fusion (assuming anything else at the time qualifies as such).

--Raj Manoharan

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Collage (2017), by Eric Johnson

The veteran Texan guitarist's first solo electric guitar studio album since 2010's fiery Up Close marks a fine return to form and the classic Eric Johnson sound.

This is a more laid back and relaxed affair, with a nice mix of instrumentals and vocals and covers and originals, blending jazz and rock with hints of new age.

But don't let the mellow atmosphere fool you – Johnson's playing is as nimble and seamless as ever, with clean, crisp tones and lightning-fast lead lines.

And Johnson's eternally youthful vocals are still so smooth and silky even at 63 years of age.

Standout tracks include Stevie Wonder's "Up Tight (Everything's Alright)," The Beatles' "We Can Work It Out," and The Ventures' "Pipeline," and Johnson's "Morning Sun," "The Fade," and "To Whom It May Concern."

Collage is proof positive that after forty-plus years in the music business, Eric Johnson's still got it.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Happy Birthday, Andy Summers!

On Sunday, December 31, 2017, Andy Summers – my favorite guitarist and musician of all time – turns 75 years old.

I first became acquainted with the music of Summers in 1983 at the age of 10 in a Catholic elementary school classroom when I heard a hypnotic and futuristic-sounding pop/rock song emanating from the radio of Candy, my substitute teacher. When I asked what the song was and who recorded it, I was promptly informed that it was “Spirits in the Material World” by The Police. I was instantly hooked, so much so that that Christmas, my parents got me a vinyl copy of Synchronicity, The Police’s fifth and final studio album and one of the biggest hits of the year. The Police have since remained my favorite rock band of all time.

Summers was the guitarist for the mega-popular group, who were active in the late 1970s and early 1980s and reunited for a 30th anniversary tour in 2007 and 2008. Being a good decade older than his bandmates Sting and Stewart Copeland, Summers began his professional recording career in the early 1960s, playing for Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band (which later became the psychedelic but short-lived Dantalian’s Chariot), Eric Burdon’s New Animals, and Soft Machine. After formally studying guitar at Northridge University in California from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, Summers returned to England and plied his trade as a session guitarist for Joan Armatrading, Neil Sedaka, Kevin Coyne, and Deep Purple’s Jon Lord before achieving monumental success and international stardom with The Police.

After the dissolution of The Police in the early 1980s, Summers scored some Hollywood films (Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Weekend at Bernie’s) and recorded one rock vocal album before establishing himself as an acclaimed and accomplished contemporary instrumental guitarist across a variety of styles, including jazz, fusion, New Age, and world music.

I was privileged to interview Summers by telephone in Fall 2000 for the January 2001 issue of DirecTV: The Guide. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Summers posted a notice of the interview in the news section of his Web site. Later, I met Summers in person during his book tour in Fall 2006, just a few months before The Police reunited for a 30th anniversary reunion tour, which I was fortunate to attend twice in August of 2007 and 2008.

For a good overview of Summers’ solo work, I highly recommend the following albums: Mysterious Barricades, A Windham Hill Retrospective, Synaesthesia, and The X Tracks. My personal favorite Summers albums are Mysterious Barricades, The Golden Wire, World Gone Strange, Synaesthesia, Earth + Sky, Fundamental (with Fernanda Takai), Circus Hero (with his rock band Circa Zero), and Triboluminescence.

--Raj Manoharan

Happy Birthday, Michael Nesmith!

On Saturday, December 30, 2017, Michael Nesmith of The Monkees (the one with the green wool hat) turns 75 years old.

Of all of The Monkees, Nesmith has had the most prolific and successful solo career. He pioneered the country-rock music format in the early to mid-1970s, founded the music and video label Pacific Arts, and basically created the concept of MTV. In addition to producing films and music videos, Nesmith also won the very first Grammy Award for Best Home Video for Elephant Parts, which later led to NBC’s short-lived Television Parts. In an interesting side note, Nesmith’s mother invented liquid paper and sold it to Gillette for a substantial fortune, which Nesmith inherited.

For a good overview of Nesmith’s solo music career, I recommend The Older Stuff, The Newer Stuff, Tropical Campfire’s, Live at the Britt Festival, Rays, and Movies of the Mind.

More information about Nesmith is available on his Web site at

The following are links to my reviews of Nesmith's 2013 live tour and the subsequent live CD.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Playback: The Brian Wilson Anthology (2017), by Brian Wilson

When I interviewed Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson 20 years ago, he told me that for him, music is spiritual. Taking that perspective into consideration, from Wilson’s lips to my ears (both by telephone and through this album), this solo career retrospective is full of spirit.

Covering three decades of Wilson’s music from 1988 onward, this recording abounds with hope, joy, inspiration, aspiration, and a positive outlook on life, even and especially in the face of challenges and turmoil. In this respect, this really is a feel-good record.

Adding to the eternal, effusive optimism on display here are the patented Beach Boy-style vocal harmonies that are the foundation and hallmark of Wilson’s musical persona, regardless of whether he’s with the Boys or on his own. But Wilson’s individual sonic explorations stretch further than that and are just as rich and resplendent.

When you get right down to it, Wilson is a fantastic singer-songwriter and one of the most acclaimed and beloved of the last 50 years, and as this album proves in spades, justifiably so.

--Raj Manoharan

Monday, November 20, 2017

Wembley or Bust (2017), by Jeff Lynne’s ELO

What more can I say that hasn’t already been said, not just about this live album but any of Jeff Lynne’s work, especially concerning Electric Light Orchestra?

Jeff Lynne is one of those artists whose music most people most likely will like, regardless of whether or not they are fans, and this is one of those albums that they most likely will like as well.

This is a great-sounding recording of Lynne’s performance in front of a 60,000-capacity crowd at London’s Wembley Stadium in 2017, with tuneful hit after tuneful hit after tuneful hit – 23 in all over two CDs and comprising one hour and 40 minutes of sonic bliss.

Of those, I can probably distill the album down to my top 10 for a compact personal playlist. However, there’s no point in me highlighting what those are, because every scintillating track here radiates accessible pop-hook brilliance.

I will say that Lynne’s cover of George Harrison’s “Handle with Care,” from Harrison and Lynne’s all-star supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, especially stands out. The only other person who comes as close to emulating Harrison’s voice and spirit – besides Harrison’s son, Dhani – is Lynne.

This is as delectable and delightful a pop confection as there ever could be, served up infectiously with both style and substance as only Jeff Lynne inimitably can.

--Raj Manoharan