While Allan Holdsworth has pursued a fairly low key career over the past twenty years, once upon a time he was one seriously important, publicly acclaimed musical dude — particularly for those of us who spent the late ’70s listening to a lot of English progressive rock. Unlike his peers-in-prestige Steve Howe (Yes), Robert Fripp (King Crimson) or Steve Hackett (Genesis), Holdsworth chose not to make his musical mark through a single outlet: between 1975 and 1980 he recorded with (among others) prog rock super-group U.K., master drummer Bill Bruford’s first eponymous band, Pierre Moerlein’s acid-trippy Gong, Zappa alumnus Jean-Luc Ponty, Canterbury movement titans the Soft Machine and the Tony Williams Lifetime, a gig that found him filling John McLaughlin’s imposingly large shoes, and doing so extremely well.
Holdsworth was a bit less scattershot in his approach during the ’80s and ’90s, composing and performing within a predominantly jazz-flavored idiom with a fairly stable cast of sidemen, sometimes playing guitar, sometimes playing guitar synthesizer, creating a milieu along the way not unlike that of former Police guitarist Andy Summers. Two of those longtime sidemen, former Level 42 drummer Gary Husband (a bandleader in his own right) and bassist Jimmy Johnson (not the football coach) joined Holdsworth last Thursday night at the Van Dyck to spin out a retrospective collection of tunes from the past two decades while also debuting new material from Holdsworth’s recent Polydor release, The Sixteen Men of Tain.
Things opened auspiciously with “Lanyard Loop,” which featured Holdsworth first creating Fender Rhodes-like chords with his headless guitar, then slathering a skronky — yet warm-sounding — solo atop Husband and Johnson’s supple rhythms, then closing with an oddly melodic theme that wouldn’t have been out of place on Steely Dan’s Aja. It was nifty. And it was also the evening’s high point, as Holdsworth and company unfortunately then proceeded to spin out a selection of generally heartless, meandering, mid-tempo jazz numbers that bled one into the other, making it hard to get excited about any of them.
Which is not to say that Holdsworth’s lost his gift, mind you, since the technical merit of his performance was flawless, his huge hands effortlessly reaching across an impossible number of frets, wringing bizarre chords out of his axe in the process, dazzling with his speed, his tone and his undeniable talent as a player. But the material offered wasn’t up to the same standards, and the trio’s performance was marred almost irreparably by two lengthy Husband drum solos, both of them technically brilliant, but both of them pointless in the context of Holdsworth’s compositions.
I might not have minded had I been at a Gary Husband Quartet show, but it seemed like some egregious grandstanding on his part to be at an Allan Holdsworth performance and have to watch the headlining artist standing there at stage right, silent, guitar at half mast, looking bored. Methinks that Holdsworth might be well served to start playing with a different cast of characters, similar to the way he did circa 1975-80, in order to re-inject some spark into his material — and in order to find a supporting cast of players who lift his music back into the stratosphere, not shuttle it off to the side of the stage.