TOMMY BOLIN: SNAPSHOT
By Laura Swezey
Each song on this aptly-titled CD is a photograph of sorts, immortalizing Tommy Bolin’s sound during different phases of his seven year career. These “photos” of Bolin vary widely, from stills of the man quietly working out song ideas alone to shots of him playing onstage, and pics of him informally tinkering around with fellow musicians. On another level, each snapshot also gives us a glimpse into Bolin’s psyche and mode of thinking as he first developed many of his superb songs.
Some of these songs evolved to sound completely different than presented here; others remained quite similar in final form. Taken as a whole, Snapshot serves as a Tommy Bolin scrapbook; a testament to the guitarist’s capabilities and an overview of his brilliance. One of Bolin’s greatest attributes as a guitarist is that his playing was incredibly emotive, no matter what he played. A whole range of emotions is delivered on Snapshot, in songs that convey the most introspective and intimate of feelings to the guitar hero swagger Bolin had down pat.
That emotion easily transcends the various musical styles in which he dabbled, as evidenced here, from funk to jazz, to Latin-influenced rhythms, to straight-ahead rock. In each genre, Tommy never failed to convey a passion and heartfelt emotion in what he was doing. When he died in 1976, Bolin left his fans with precious few official recordings. Thanks to the releases put forth by the Tommy Bolin Archives, we are given more insight and coveted material of this most original, highly talented musician.
Twenty-two years after his death he is far from being a household name, but due to the efforts of the Archives and devoted fans, Tommy Bolin has amassed a cult following that continues to grow. Bolin fans understand that Tommy’s contribution to music need not be recognized on a widespread scale as the music of Hendrix, Clapton, and Beck to have a profound affect on those of us who are listening. We understand and appreciate Tommy Bolin’s genius. And if you purchased this CD or borrowed it from a Bolin-pushing friend, you are a part of that distinctive circle.
This demo of “Savanah Woman,” a gem from Teaser, begins with an Echoplex-laden synthesizer introduction before that familiar, classy guitar melody begins. With a sparse backing of piano, drums and percussion, this pared down version bears a certain refinement in its rawness and charm. Although a bit slower to build, Bolin’s guitar solo here is every bit as smokin’ as on the finished product. Bolin’s soft voice, laced with a tad of vulnerability, is contrasted by the expulsion of a pair of hisses after the line “Why can’t she burn like fire?” underscoring the lyrical frustration over an unattainable woman.
Unlike Bang’s version of this song which is excitement from the get-go, Snapshot’s “Standing In The Rain” begins comparatively low-key. With its steady, pulsing acoustic chords, the song builds to a spirited crescendo after the graceful guitar solo, with Bolin working his guitar stylings to a frenzied pace. His impassioned vocal delivery adds to the mounting furor. It is easy to see that a “plugged in” version of the song in this style on Bang would have sounded just as sensational.
Tom Stephenson’s glimmering keyboards, Bolin’s sparse noodlings, and Bobby Berge’s tasteful percussion usher in “Cat’s Cradle,” one of Energy’s standards performed live in Sioux City. In this song Bolin’s powerful guitar breaks lead to jazzy passages, building up the tension. He lets loose with a few Jimmy Page-like twangs a la “Dazed and Confused,” and bursts of, well, energy, before unleashing a blistering solo of his typical fiery agility moments before Jeff Cook’s vocals begin. This song incorporates the three types of music Cook has used to describe the unique amalgamation that was the band’s sound: “heavy metal jazz fusion,” and demonstrates that these musicians were expert enough to handle quick changes in tempo and musical style.
”Oh Carol” is the forerunner of the James Gang’s “From Another Time” sans heavy percussion and the fast-as-lightning riff that Tommy developed for the Bang album. The “Oh Carol” line later became “Hey Girl,” but both renditions contain the Bolin/Tesar classic: “Bittersweet and scarlet dreams/Come from a blood red wine. Saviors it seems/Come from another time.” This slower, steady version, with its pulsing beat, has an almost reggae feel.
“Gotta Dance” kicks off with a wailing sax, and for the next two minutes, Bolin spars with Norma Jean Bell. The two never try to outdo each other, but rather go for a melodic blending of their soulful styles. What is remarkable is how closely they match each other in tone and emotion. Featuring the Private Eyes lineup, the song ends with Tommy’s guitar scatting all over the place, leaving us longing for more.
Even scaled down without the guitar embellishments he would later add, “Spanish Lover” here is every bit as exquisite as the version that graces Miami. Bolin’s guitar playing is lithe, and his voice conveys a gentle sensibility. It is a shining example of the finesse Tommy strived for even when his only audience was the tape recorder in his bedroom.
“Cucumber Jam” took place at the home studio of Bolin’s friend Phillip Polimeni,, and features Tommy joined by Bobby Berge on drums and Stanley Sheldon on bass. This session showcases Bolin’s impressive versatility; he’s on fire one minute, effortlessly playing a rapid-fire hammered-on solo, then grooving with the infectious main riff of this uptempo boogie the next. We can almost feel the electricity pulsing through the musicians as they recorded this exhilarating piece of music. “Cucumber Slumber” is the latter portion of the aforementioned “Cucumber Jam,” but radically different in style. In this loose, laid back jam, Bolin delivers a wickedly tight, fluid solo over the bass and high hat groove. At times jazzy, but leaning more toward funk than fusion, the song exemplifies the comfort level amongst the trio of musicians playing together; they sound unified and confident.
With shades of Tommy’s epic “Post Toastee” in its cadence, “The Devil Is Singing Our Song” is in bare bones form, markedly different than the version on Bang, where Bolin’s phase shifter creates an ominous effect. The dark lyrical theme gains prominence on Snapshot with Tommy’s haunting vocals and just an acoustic guitar backing.
An urgent and raw “Homeward Strut” is presented here with exciting results. Lighter on the synthesizer/keyboards and percussion, Bolin’s guitar is closer to the forefront, adding to the funkified feel of the song. Tommy adorns this version with his trademark Echoplex screams and wails that persist as the whole thing grinds to a halt. From beginning to end, it is the kind of high-intensity excitement that only Bolin and friends could generate.
Rounding out the CD is a slower paced version of the James Gang’s “Summer Breezes,” with Tommy’s measured falsetto vocals, mirrored even on this early interpretation by his high pitched guitar garnishings, giving the tune the same polished effect that the finished version possesses. Both renditions impart an optimism fueled by lazy warm weather.
So here it is, a wonderful collection of Bolin “Snapshots,” developed, and ready for your certain listening pleasure.
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