On December 5, 1980 at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, California an acoustic concert was held by three guitarists. Sounds like it would be a nice little get together; maybe with some hippie-type singalongs and whatnot.

Except that the guitarists here were Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucia. What resulted from that concert is arguably one of the most influential and critically acclaimed instrumental guitar albums of all time, and easily one of the most fiery, passionate and exciting acoustic-guitars-only albums ever: Friday Night in San Francisco.

A little background on the trio, for the uninitiated and those too lazy to click the hardlinks: McLaughlin, one of the greats of modern fusion guitar, was the guitarist on Miles Davis's Bitches Brew and the leader of the fast-paced Indian-music-driven Mahavishnu Orchestra. Di Meola is one of the most ridiculously skilled fusion guitarists ever; his super-fast Mediterranean-influenced style (usually on a distorted electric guitar) with the groundbreaking Return to Forever and on his solo work has earned him criticism for a concern with technique at the expense of melody at times; he is, however, a formidable player and composer. De Lucia, the "odd man out," as it were, is a flamenco guitarist from Spain who is generally regarded as the greatest living guitarist in flamenco music.

The first track features DiMeola and de Lucia teaming up for a medley of Di Meola's "Mediterranean Sundance" (first recorded by the duo on DiMeola's 1976 album Elegant Gypsy) and DeLucia's own "Rio Ancho." For over 11 minutes the pair trade off solos and distinctive rhythms, winding through the songs without so much as a pause.

Di Meola and McLaughlin play a wandering version of Chick Corea's "Short Tales of the Black Forest," trading rapid-fire licks, eventually devolving into making odd noises by banging on their guitars and scratching their strings before breaking into the Pink Panther theme (seemingly unplanned) and then into a brief twelve bar blues that is probably one of the most complex ever recorded (anything further out loses the title "blues") before returning to the song to finish.

McLaughlin's duet with DeLucia on an Egberto Gismonti piece, "Frevo Rasgado," is third on the album, and the complex melodies and improvisations are played flawlessly and emotionally by the two before a tradeoff guitar duel ending the song.

On the last live track, the three come together for "Fantasia Suite," without making the song sound overly crowded and keeping the energy level high.

Herein lies the one big weak spot of the album: All 4 live tracks come out to under 40 minutes. The last track, "Guardian Angel," is a studio recording of the trio; while it's a great song, there is a feeling of discontinuity with the other tracks to some extent; it almost feels like it was added to get the album up to the length of an album rather than a long EP. However, more than 40 minutes of guitar-only music this fast-paced is very hard to digest (and this is music that begs for close attentive listening), so this is hardly that big of a shortcoming.

All in all, an album that anyone who loves jazz, fusion, acoustic music, guitars, or virtuosity of any kind absolutely should hear. If you actually play guitar and are starting to get a big ol' inflated ego about your skill, get this and a copy of a Django Reinhardt album and that should take care of it pretty well.

The performance by the uncredited extra member of any live band (the audience) is also almost inspiring: they cheer at exhilirating moments, shout during climaxes of solos, laugh, and applaud, making this an unapologetically live album that really is the closest I've ever heard to getting across what it means to "be there live."

Track list:

  1. Mediterranean Sundance/Rio Ancho (11:31)
  2. Short Tales of the Black Forest (8:43)
  3. Frevo Rasgado (7:55)
  4. Fantasia Suite (8:50)
  5. Guardian Angel (4:01)

Released in 1980 on Columbia Records.

It should be noted the three got together for two other acoustic-only albums: 1982's Passion, Grace and Fire and 1996's Guitar Trio.