For many music fans, the late seventies and eighties were the golden age for music and musicians. Music had become a huge money-making industry thanks to the perfect storm of MTV and baby boomers having cash to spend on albums and CDs. Michael Jackson’s Thriller, released in 1982, was the blend of something artistically satisfying and commercially successful. Not only did Thriller go on to sell more records than any in history (until the Eagle’s Greatest Hits), but it also took home a then-record 8 Grammy Awards.
What made this so?
A big part of it concerned what developed in the LA music scene. With the shift from NY-based Brill Building pop stars to Topanga Canyon Singer-Songwriters, LA became the pop music hub. Warner Brothers, Capitol, A & M, Epic, and even Motown were all LA’s headquarters. The companies pumped money into their studios, giving them the latest equipment. Artists wanted to record in LA. Sunshine and great studios! There was also access to great musicians.
Studio musicians in the 1960s were a critical and often uncredited part of the music scene. Few knew who the Wrecking Crew or Funk Brothers were. The records companies knew those folks well, employing them as much as possible – they were hitmakers.
Bands like the Byrds were offended when, with the ink drying on their first record contract, they learned that the Wrecking Crew would be playing the instruments on their songs. Then, the royalty checks started showing up – which occurred more often than not when the Wrecking Crew was involved!
As pop music moved away from a hit-single business to an album business, the band itself became more important. As a result, musicians within bands became better players. And, like Led Zepplin, the band comprises two former studio musicians.
The Wrecking Crew weren’t getting gigs as bands like the Eagles insisted on playing their instruments. During this drought, a new crop of studio players emerged on the scene. Playing jingles and film scores instead of pop singles, these players were more musical than their predecessors. Bands like Steely Dan abandoned their groups to tap this inventory of great old and new players. The music became better. By the time Thriller came along, the studio scene was vibrant again.
Look at all the Grammy winners for Album of the Year in the ’80s; all of them, including the two wins for “bands” ( Toto and U2), have studio musicians collaborating. Most are complete studio creations without a band, often with different musicians on each track (like Thriller).
Jeff Porcaro, drummer of Toto, and Steve Lukather, their guitarist, might have been the busiest session musicians of the eighties. Jeff’s rock-solid grooves and Steve’s just-perfect overdriven guitar solos were the in-demand cats for the time. They were so engaged and regularly turned down work – with BIG name artists. Plus, they had their band, which was busy selling records and winning Grammy Awards.
Against this backdrop, we come to the CD Baked Potato Super Live, attributed to the Greg Mathieson Project. The “Project” was an ongoing Sunday night gig at the small North Hollywood jazz club, the Baked Potato. For years, this gig had been a well-known secret for music fans. This was where you catch studio giants like Larry Carlton, Abe Laboriel, Jimmy Johnson, Carlos Vega, Lenny Castro, and Jeff Porcaro (or their substitutes) every week. Released from the confines of their studio gigs, you could find them “blowing” and letting it all hangout. For a music fan, you couldn’t hear this playing anywhere else. You had to get there early to get a seat. Los Angelinos would eagerly look in the back of the Sunday Calendar section to see who was playing that Sunday night.
In 1981 Carlton had left and handed over the guitar duties to then-24-year-old guitarist Steve Lukather. Quite a set of coattails to ride in on. Replacing a legend like Carlton made Luke nervous. It wasn’t a huge problem because he was on fire at the time. His solos were everywhere. Please take a look at his session list, it is staggering. Artists as diverse as Olivia Newton-John and the Tubes were topping the charts with his trademark solo guitar breaks that blended power and melody.
When Super Live was recorded, he was also at work with the soon-to-be Grammy winner Toto IV. In many ways, while well underway, his career was just getting started. Worldwide hits, Rosanna and Africa, were yet to come. His lead vocals and songwriting, which produced the number 10 song, I Won’t Hold You Back, were still in the future. For Luke, this was the perfect crossroads of high expectations being met with confidence (and a ton of talent).
If you are looking for a disc that captures the energy and enthusiasm of players who can’t believe they are doing what they are doing, this is where to go. Fun pours off the CD. Jeff Porcaro never sounded looser or better. Luke’s tone, a single 12 Dumble through a tube screamer and space echo, is fantastic. All you need to do is listen to the opening track, Bomp Me, to hear what a special disc this is.
Porcaro’s endless bass-drum triplets, Luke’s chorus-infused rhythm followed by a whammy bar solo that makes your jaw drop. You can hear the delight pouring through the strings with Luke able to play more than the twelve bars he’d be allotted in a session. Oh, that’s just the first track.
While not all the tracks capture the energy of Bomp me, they do show a band grooving hard. The interplay, nuance, and dynamics are always at play. These are players who not only can play but know how to complement each other.
Pops Popswell (from the Crusaders) was a regular for many of these gigs captured here on bass. Mathieson provides an excellent grounding for the band with his compositions and keyboard work (Hammond work in particular).
The show is about high-school friends Porcaro and Lukather, however. If you are a fan of either, this disc is a must-have. Luke’s solos are clinics for anyone wanting to play melodic, soulful, and fast lead guitar. For someone like me who would play the fade out of I Keep Forgetting over and over to hear Porcaro’s triplet (check it out, it’s incredible), this is Jeff I can’t do without. They groove more profoundly than the San Andreas Fault. If you listen carefully, you can hear his smiling face. For me, this is a desert island disc.
In 25 years, I have never grown tired of listening to Luke’s solo on Home or Jeff, and Pop’s interplay on I Don’t Know. It’s a rare snapshot from an era that’s gone. It’s just a unique combination of super-talented musicians at an excellent time for music, having fun playing together. Wasn’t that the whole point of playing anyway?
You will have to hunt this down as it is not in print. It’s worth it.