Buffalo News (2010)

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A musical calling ; Allan Holdsworth plays with a passion Jeff Miers
24 September 2010
Buffalo News

You wonder, sometimes, why the guy who can barely play his instrument is the one up on the stage, throngs of adoring females at his feet, banks of uber-expensive amplifiers at his back, tortured grimaces doing battle with exaggerated pouts on his face.

Folks like this are a dime a truckload. Very few of them add anything new to the grand lexicon of guitar playing. A perfect example smacked me right in the face earlier this week, while I was enduring Nickelback's performance at HSBC Arena. The sheer inanity of it all, the unflinching embracing of every cliche known to rock guitar, and the implication that the lowest common denominator is more than good enough -- these depressed me almost as much as did the manner in which the crowd received them, as if they were manna from on high. Surely, there must be something more?

The guitar is a means to an end, of course, and that end is the creation of worthwhile, passionate and hopefully intelligent (or if not, then gloriously dumb!) music. Often, the contemporary guitar-music scene gets bogged down in a cycle of technique-worship to the point where one can attend a concert by a revered player only to leave feeling as if you've interrupted the guy while he was practicing.

Most sentient guitar players who have schooled themselves in the rock, jazz and permutations of each, taking place over the past 40 years, know full well that Allan Holdsworth is one of the most imaginative, virtuosic and fluent electric guitarists extant. The generally unassuming and painfully self-critical guitarist and composer will never be as famous as the half-wit banging out barre chords before the adoring eyes of thousands. He seems fine with that fact. Some see playing music as a means of achieving fame and avoiding "real" work. Others see it as a calling, and know that it is incredibly difficult, demanding, "real" work. Holdsworth is the latter.

The man's influence has been heard extensively in the worlds of rock and progressive music. Holdsworth's legato, crystalline and fluid lines are both incredibly complex and instantly recognizable. You can hear their influence in much of what Eddie Van Halen was doing around the time of "1984," and you can definitely note the inspiration in the playing of Rush's Alex Lifeson, particularly on the "Permanent Waves" album, and the gorgeous solo during "YYZ."

That said, no one really sounds like Holdsworth. That's because he doesn't sound like a guitar player. His beautiful tone, use of dense chord structures and extended voicings, his command of chromaticism, his ability to play complex, deeply musical lines at blazing speed all share much more with saxophone and piano players from the bebop and post-bop schools than they do with rock guitarists.

Holdsworth's personal philosophy -- what seems like a blend of old-school work ethic and humble asceticism -- is most likely the driving force behind what, from the outside, appears to be an all- but-uninterrupted flow of brilliant musical accomplishment spanning 40 years. The writer Anil Prasad (www.innerviews.org) once queried Holdsworth concerning his devoted legion of followers.

"It makes me cringe," Holdsworth replied, when asked how he responds to the oft-proposed theory that he is the greatest electric guitarist of all time.

"It's nice to think that you could do something that other people enjoy. I think my own love of music is why I keep doing things. As for other people making those comments, I have to ignore them, because I don't believe them myself. I can only do what I do and I keep trying to make progress I get frustrated because music is never-ending.

"You can never know anything. That's the one thing I got comfortable with immediately as a musician -- the fact that I could never know anything about music."

Allan Holdsworth, with drummer Chad Wackerman and bassist Jimmy Johnson, plays the Tralf at 8 p.m. Tuesday.