Teaser (Columbia ’75) Rating: A
A great guitarist who died far too young and never really got his due, Tommy Bolin is perhaps best remembered today for his brief tenures with other acts between 1975 and 1976, including Billy Cobham (Spectrum), the James Gang (Bang, Miami), and Deep Purple (Come Taste The Band). But Bolin also recorded two rarely remarked upon solo albums, starting with this terrific debut, which showed that Bolin was also a fine singer, songwriter, and bandleader. Really, Bolin was a guy who had unlimited potential; if he had a weakness it was simply that like other guitar heroes such as Jeff Beck and Gary Moore, he was so skilled at so many genres that perhaps he cast too wide a net for himself. Still, that's nitpicking when it comes to Teaser, which starts strongly with the extremely enjoyable "The Grind," which features some stellar slide work and whose great poppy chorus could've easily garnered him some airplay with but a bit of luck. "Homeward Strut," like the later instrumental "Marching Powder," is a strong groove-based effort not unlike Blow By Blow-era Jeff Beck or his own earlier work with Cobham. The atmospheric "Dreamer" is simply a great ballad, albeit one with more great guitar, plus an uncredited Glenn Hughes sings the last verse (spectacularly) and makes it even more powerful. Lesser songs include "Savannah Woman," which has a nice Latin-tinged groove but isn't a highlight, and "People People;" I'm not crazy about the reggae groove on this one, though I am a sucker for some well-blown sax and Bolin does sing well on this track. Still, much better is the hard rocking title track, his signature song featuring his trademark Echoplex guitar, and another major highlight is "Wild Dogs." Man, I just love everything about this song, the lyrics, the vocals, and especially that guitar crescendo towards the end, and "Lotus" strongly ends the album with a moody, metallic closer. All in all, my complaints about this album are very minor, as it features an incredibly wide range of mostly terrific songs from a true original who could've gone on to become one of the greats.
Private Eyes (Columbia ’76) Rating: A-
Recorded mere months before his fatal drug overdose on December 4, 1976, Private Eyes is another eclectic album that mixes together funk, fusion, hard rock, pop ballads, and jazz, and Bolin again proves to be a strong singer and composer in addition to being a supremely versatile guitarist who could tackle any style and had a terrific tone. The album starts with “Bustin’ Out For Rosey,” which is kinda funky and adds fusion-y guitar parts, but it’s the prominent backing vocals and hooky sax from Norma Jean Bell (the album’s secret weapon) that steals the show. “Sweet Burgundy” is a pleasantly melodic and quite pretty ballad with more classy sax from Bell, while the epic 9-minute “Post Toastee” is the album's undeniable highlight. Bolin is in top form on this song, which sounds a bit like Clapton's "Cocaine" filtered through Sabbath and funk, with some first class jamming thrown in along the way. “Shake The Devil” is another strong, more atmospheric (mostly due to the keyboards) hard rocker, and I also really like “Gypsy Soul,” a melodic ballad with delicate falsetto vocals and an overall sound that would easily fit on today’s “smooth jazz” radio stations. Even better is “Someday Will Bring Our Love Home,” the album’s most easily flowing and catchy song that by all rights should’ve been a hit single. The somber orchestral ballad “Hello, Again” is less successful and is the album's weakest track, but the lively “You Told Me That You Loved Me” rights the ship by echoing the album’s main theme (girl trouble; so what else is new?) and ending the album with some more hot soloing. All in all, like in the James Gang his first solo outing was superior, but Private Eyes was still a consistently enjoyable second solo set that like Teaser has been overlooked for far too long. Alas, listening to both albums is a bit of a bittersweet experience when one considers that Bolin likely would’ve went on to even better things in the future. Note: Before all the band work I mentioned previously, from 1969-71 Bolin was also a member of Zephyr, where he was the standout member of an average band with a Janis wannabe. In 1972 he joined Energy, where he was the standout member of an average band with a David Clayton-Thomas wannabe. He also played on the debut of the Canadian hard rock band Moxy, and there have been a slew of archive releases since his death, many quite worthwhile if you're a big fan of Bolin. If you can find it, I highly recommend checking out the career encompassing, 2-cd retrospective The Ultimate: The Best Of Tommy Bolin, which does a great job of presenting the incredibly wide range of music he put out in a very short period of time; the version of "Wild Dogs" with Deep Purple is not to be missed.