On 5th December, 1980, Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco De Lucia were two months into what had so far been an extremely successful and creative tour. Even just the concept itself was intriguing – three guitarists, and acoustic to boot! With not a drummer, percussionist, or bassist in sight. The sheer novelty of it all. Recorded at the Warfield Theatre, California, Friday Night in San Francisco manages to capture this triumvirate trio of instrumentalists at the apex of their abilities.
Now Paco, although he wasn’t all that well known outside of Spain, was already something of a super star of Flamenco, and whose virtuosity on guitar was as much respected as it was unmatched. McLaughlin was undoubtedly the most renowned, having played with Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Tony Williams, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, along with pretty much the who’s who of jazz-rock and everyone else in between. Di Meola was probably somewhere in the middle of the other two. His career began officially when he became a member of Return to Forever, before releasing a series of highly acclaimed solo albums, and was also voted best jazz guitarist four times in Guitar Player Magazine (in other words, the bloke had a following).
Now some Flamenco purists might turn their noses up at the fact that Di Meola and McLaughlin are using a plectrum, when Paco wasn’t. But that doesn’t bother me one bit. All that matters is the music itself; and plectrum or no, this is unquestionably some of the finest acoustic guitar ever to have been performed in front of a live audience.
The performance opens with a dazzling duet between Al and Paco on “Mediterranean Sunset”, a Di Meola composition first released on his second solo album Elegant Gypsy in 1977. Al’s signature light-speed riffs are everywhere, while Paco plays some ferocious Flamenco. Both are in perfect simpatico throughout, right to the scintillating and exciting climax at the end. Exhilarating for both players and audience alike I’m sure.
Next we have Chick Corea’s “Short Tales of the Black Forest”, where Di Meola and McLaughlin really do pull out all the stops as performers, like two gunslingers attempting to prove who can shoot the furthest and fastest. There is even a brief reference to Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther” thrown in for good measure, something which elicits much laughter from the audience. They also throw in a little 12 bar blues before finishing with a fiery crescendo.
“Frevo Rasgado, a song written by Egberto Gismonti, begins side two, where this time we have McLaughlin and Paco locked together in mortal six string combat. Personally my money’s on Paco, but I can tell you that McLaughlin’s not too far behind. Both manage to give as good as the other, as far as I’m concerned, and while it’s Paco who probably has the edge, their exchange is purely magical all the same.
Di Meola’s “Fantasia Suite” finds all three on stage exchanging notes at an ever complicated rate. One can hear occasionally an audience member cry out during the quieter moments, but even on LP the listener is simply overwhelmed by the sheer synergy and power on display here. It’s as if they had of had a dose of speed about an hour before the show. And that’s what must have impressed people at the time, no matter how sophisticated they might have been.
Oddly, the final track is a studio recording made in White Plains, New York. Written by McLaughlin, “Guardian Angel” finds the trio managing to capture not only the complexity of their playing, but also the camaraderie between all three men. It is a relationship which lasted for many years, as attested to by the numerous reunions that took place over the proceeding decades. Paco De Lucia was Spain’s equivalent to Jimi Hendrix. And it was this album, more than anything he had done before, which really put him on the map, thus exposing a multitude of people for the first time to the genius of Flamenco, almost in the way that Carmen Amaya had some forty-years before. Yet this was the record which proved that guitars didn’t need to be electric in order to be exciting. Because from this a new sense of sophistication had arisen, inspiring a whole new generation of guitarists in the process. And for that at least you have to give them credit where it’s due.