Oh man…almost 30 years since first hearing this and it sounds just as fresh, just as vibrant, just as alive as the first time I heard it. Friday Night in San Francisco is more than just a live document of three guitar virtuosos at the top of their game; it’s a seminal work of music, astounding in its passion, technicality, and execution, and a high water mark for Al Di Meola, John McLaughin, and Paco De Lucia. It’s bar none one of my favorite records of all time, and remains for me the apex of what you can do with a guitar, unadorned, armed with only your love of making music.
Cheap poetics, I know. But that’s all I could muster when I was 17 and in the thrall of so much music I never heard before. In the span of a year I was introduced to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Frank Zappa, Jethro Tull, Return to Forever, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. If you want to know what made me truly fall in love with music, it was that year: 1990 to 1991. It was Kind of Blue, Absolutely Free, A Love Supreme, Birds of Fire, Minstrel in the Gallery. And it was most definitely Friday Night Live in San Francisco.
Separated by left, right, and center channel and unaccompanied by any other instruments, I was immediately taken with the articulation, with the clarity with which you hear every note, every finger sliding across the string. The opening duet between De Lucia and Di Meola, “Mediterranean Dance/Rio Ancho” has some of the fastest playing I’ve ever heard, the mix of Di Meola’s steel string acoustic paired against De Lucia’s Spanish nylon guitar bringing a warmth to the arrangements. I knew Al Di Meola from his work with Return To Forever (“Majestic Dance” off Romantic Warrior was another major discovery for me at this time) but this was the first time I had heard Lucia, and the flamenco style he brings to his playing was a revelation for me.
Probably the most known factor for me me was McLaughlin, who I grew to love after hearing Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire from the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He comes in with the second track, “Short Tales of the Black Forest” duetting with Di Meola, and it’s a goddamn delight to hear all the styles they mix into the piece, including a hilarious riff on Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme. Hearing the audience laugh along as I did listening to it brought me further into the album, and the unexpected moments of beauty mixed in with the blues and fun feel so organic to what is happening on stage. “Frevo Rasgado” pairs and McLaughlin and De Lucia, and the thing I can’t help noticing now is how often I was able to spot “the lick” being used. For those who don’t know what “the lick” is, it’s this, and I highly recommend you check out Adam Neely on YouTube, because not only does he go into an incredible amount of detail about it, but he goes into an incredible amount of detail on everything music related, and is a blast to listen to. “Fantasia Suite” is our first real chance to hear all three musicians in this setting, and it’s about as lush and filled with dazzling runs as you’d expect. “Guardian Angel” is technically live, although it was records later in a studio in White Plains, NY but I’m not going to deduct points for shady geography.
I think the best summary I can give to Friday Night in San Francisco is it feels more like a rambling, warm and funny conversation late at night with friends than a blistering live performance. And yet within that intimacy is some of the most exquisite playing I’ve ever heard. 30 years laters it still manages to enthrall me whenever I hear it.