TOMMY BOLIN: ENERGY

By Jim Sheridan

Tommy’s missing year! For those who had bought up all of Tommy’s official releases before the 1990’s and the Bolin Archives, 1972 seemed to be a missing year. 1971 had seen the release of the Eddie Kramer-produced Going Back To Colorado from Zephyr, while Tommy would record with both the James Gang and Billy Cobham in 1973. Where was 1972? Articles and interviews mentioned that he was in the band Energy, but that they had never released any albums before breaking up. Bootlegs and rumors circulated, both of varying quality, but that was it. The puzzle was missing a big piece.

It was not until 1998 that the world finally was given the official release of The Energy Radio Broadcasts, a chance to hear Energy stretching out live with a unique brand of what singer and lyricist Jeff Cook called “jazz metal fusion blues.” The Energy Radio Broadcasts gave over two hours of music, remastered and exquisitely packaged, Energy’s first album, twenty-five years after the fact. While a motherlode of molten music, it only whetted people’s appetites for more. As an “official bootleg,” its sound quality was raw and pure, accurately conveying the concert feel but leaving fans wondering what the studio Energy would have been like. Wonder no more. Tommy Bolin: Energy is Energy’s studio album at last. This CD is an eclectic band effort fit to sit alongside Tommy’s band work from Zephyr, the James Gang, and Deep Purple, as well as his solo material. Yes, it is that good.

There are quite a few elements that make Tommy Bolin: Energy stand up to his best work as strongly as it does. First, there is the sound quality. Unlike the live broadcasts, this is studio recorded material which since has been remastered, and tweaked so that the guitar leaps out at you. Actually, ALL of the instruments sound sharp and clear. This leads to the second point; it is a true band performance, not just a guitar star with faceless backing musicians.

Jeff Cook’s name was always a familiar one to Bolin fans who noted songwriting credits; here one gets to listen to his husky delivery of his own words. Tom Stephenson in particular comes into his own; his majestic keyboards are as powerfully a part of the band’s sound as Tommy’s guitar is. Bobby Berge and Stan Sheldon, of course, were an elastic and tasty rhythm section with great power and chops. Finally, there is the sequencing and of course the songs themselves. Like Private Eyes and especially Teaser, this CD plays like a musical journey; venturing into a variety of territories, but maintaining a cohesion and balance.

The wide range of ability displayed by the band is breathtaking, but all the more so as the flow of the songs and melodies is served, rather than self-indulgence or ego. That command of dynamics is what makes the great ones great. “Red Skies” shimmers in with a subdued, ghostly feel, but quickly yanks the listener into the heavy jamming that continues with “Heartlight.” The band ventures out into the cosmos with Tommy’s hard jazz instrumental “Hok-o Hey,” but comes back to earth with a warm, gritty take on “Got No Time For Trouble.” The Tom Stephenson sung “Limits” dips into psychedelia, which is then just as swiftly countered by the rollicking blues-rock and slide guitar of “Eyes Of Blue.”

If this was an LP, here would be where side two would begin. The haunting “Dreamer,” with Jeff Cook on vocals, offers the sweet and romantic side of Energy before the sharp-edged lyrics of “Miss Christmas” are delivered. These two songs act as a sort of yin and yang; both are based around Tom Stephenson’s majestic piano, and fit Jeff Cook’s vocal range perfectly; both contain breakout Bolin solos; but while the first is a song of heartbreak and loss, the latter is one of defiance. The remainder of the CD is an instrumental showcase.

Many fans lamented that Private Eyes had all vocal songs and no tracks that were pure music without words. Consider this closing segment of Tommy Bolin: Energy to be payback for that. “Naked Edge” taken from the soundtrack of the short film, “Break On Through” is really a few songs in one. Its first section has Tommy working out over a static rhythm groove. He lets fly with many of his patented licks and some new ones too before the song erupts into a mind-tweaking psychedelic freak-out that makes one think he should’ve joined Pink Floyd instead of Deep Purple! It eases into a sweet slide guitar lullaby, perfectly phrased. “Sky Sail” is a closing treat, the duet of only Tom Stephenson’s naked piano and Tommy’s lyrical guitar leads, making time stand still.

Tommy Bolin: Energy is many things. It is a fully integrated CD from a band that never released an album. It is a Tommy Bolin showcase. It is musical diversity made cohesive. It is a challenging sonic journey that will please upon first listen and continue to amaze on twentieth listen. It is a meld of the familiar Tommy Bolin sounds you love and some sounds you never thought you would hear. It is an album that was ahead of its time in 1972 whose time has at last come in 1999. Another piece of the puzzle is finally in place.

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