This isn’t a eulogy, no sad occasion, mostly because Tommy Bolin is so very present on the pleasantly unsanctimonious Great Gypsy Soul.
Of course, you can’t help but miss Bolin, whose shooting star of a career included stops with the James Gang, Billy Cobham and Deep Purple, along with a pair of celebrated solo projects in 1975’s Teaser and 1976’s Private Eyes. But his physical absence, after a shocking accidental overdose later in ’76, seems smaller after a spin through this interesting new studio tribute album.
The featured guest performers — typical, really, with these type of projects — cross a sweeping landscape of styles. They include Joe Bonamassa, Wilco’s Nels Cline, Peter Frampton, Toto’s Steve Lukather, Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford, two members of the Allman Brothers Band in Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, and two members of Deep Purple in Bolin bandmate Glenn Hughes and Steve Morse. The difference on Great Gypsy Soul, however, is that each plays a distinctively collaborative role since original outtakes and alternative versions of tracks from Bolin’s two solo projects are used as foundations for the music.
That makes this labor of love from Haynes and producer Greg Hampton, who previously worked on the 2006’s archival Bolin release Whips and Roses, both an emotional valedictory and a fresh new opportunity to hear Bolin’s short-lived, ass-whipping genius. Bolin, and this is memorably unusual, is the star of his own tribute project. Much of this music has never been heard before, and in that way brilliantly reanimates Bolin’s impishly inventive spirit.
Haynes himself sits in for a new take on the grinding title track from Teaser, while Trucks appears on “Smooth Fandango,” a thumping delight. Morse matches Bolin’s exploratory ambition on the similarly named “Crazed Fandango,” another great find from the sessions for Teaser. Frampton offers a similarly fiery counterpoint on “The Grind.” “Wild Dogs” gets a scuffing up from Whitford, while Lukather lays a grease-popping groove onto “Homeward Strut.” Glenn Hughes and Sonny Landreth combine to complete “Sugar Shack,” giving it a nasty Southern rawk vibe. Nels Cline and Myles Kennedy appear on a delicately mournful rendition of “Dreamer,” Big Sugar and Gordie Johnson on the anthematic reggae-rocker “People People,” and John Scofield on a lilting, jazz-inflected “Savannah Woman.”
Finally, there’s a neat approximation of a last-call jam to close things out, as Bonamassa, Hughes and Cline take on “Lotus.” A bonus CD in the expanded edition of Great Gypsy Soul includes Oz Noy and Cline’s appearance on “Flying Fingers,” plus a similarly overstuffed four-part exploration of “Marching Bag,” featuring Bonamassa, Cline, Frampton, Hampton, Haynes, Johnson, Landreth, Lukather, Morse, Noy, Scofield, Trucks and Whitford.
By the time it’s over, Great Gypsy Soul has neatly avoid the cash-grab missteps that doom so many similar tribute efforts. That’s because it doesn’t just reawaken us to Bolin’s masterful gift, honorable though that may be as a goal. It’s conjured up something more deeply spiritual, and a whole lot more fun. As much as this works a fanfare for Bolin as an artist, the album ultimately holds a deeper resonance because of the guitarist’s very presence.
Great Gypsy Soul, due March 27 from 429 Records, acknowledges the passing of time, and of friends, but it’s also a stirring reminder that the music left behind lives on — and, in this way, so does Tommy Bolin.
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