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Friday Night In San Francisco by John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, and Paco De Lucia

08-26-2018 | By Robert S. Youman | Issue 99

Friday Night In San Francisco

Friday Night In San Francisco  - John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, and Paco De Lucia

Back Story

Impex Records has now reissued Friday Night In San Francisco on 180 Gram Numbered Limited Edition vinyl. Only 3000 copies will be made available for sale. Remastered by Bernie Grundman and Bob Donnelly from the original master tapes, it was also plated and pressed at RTI and supervised by Rick Hashimoto. As this is such a seminal and much loved recording, I thought it might be fun to dive in and take a serious listen. Please be patient as I step you through some of my own personal experiences with this title and why I feel so strongly that this is a very important release.

Friday Night in San Francisco is one of my all time favorite albums. I distinctly remember the first time that I heard it. I was at a late night party back in the early 1980's that was finally winding down after some considerable celebration and alcohol. My wife, who volunteered to be the designated driver, was more than ready to hit the road and my body and mind were both passionately sending me the same message. The host sat us down and virtually begged us to stay and take a listen to something that he thought was very special and that he insisted would be an appropriate ending to a wonderful evening. Reluctantly and mostly out of respect and common courtesy, we took a seat in his living room. As he lowered the tone arm, our eyes continued to glance at the clock on the wall as we both sighed and smiled at each other. We never moved an inch for the next 45 minutes.

Recorded in 1981 at San Francisco's Garfield Theatre, there must have been magic in the air that Friday night. John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, and Paco De Lucia put on a show that was by most accounts an amazing turning point in concert and recording history. My apologies up front for all the accolades, but the event was and still remains truly inspirational. No percussion, no bass, no piano, no brass. Just three of the finest guitarists alive providing an acoustic masterpiece of breath taking melodic interludes and mind boggling improvisation. I would not call it combative, but the effort was certainly highly competitive and in many respects wonderfully collaborative. They were having as much fun as the audience if not more.

Each of the three were well known and highly respected at the time for their own specific specialties and skill sets. DeLucia was an acclaimed up and coming Flamenco superstar. McLaughlin was a celebrated rock and jazz virtuoso considered by many to rank with the very best like Hendrix, Clapton, and Santana. Di Meola was for several years voted best jazz guitarist by Guitar Magazine as a member of the jazz-fusion group Return to Forever and for his own solo recordings. It was quite an all star trio who represented the very best of three different genres.

A little jazz, a little blues, a little folk and even some delightful humor (a nod to the Pink Panther theme), but mostly some of the finest acoustic guitar ever recorded. For me, the most extraordinary track is "Mediterranean Sundance" in which Di Meola and De Lucia let it all hang out and then some. The smoldering interplay and dazzling solos will have you reaching for your own air guitar. Also truly amazing is the ever perspicuous emotional connection between artist and audience that comes through loud and clear throughout the concert. Again, the energy level reaches a peak early on and never seems to find a plateau as the roller coaster rises and then rises again. This was one big party and no one wanted it to end! Not the performers. Not the audience. And now we can revisit that experience in our own listening rooms!

Review System

  • Sonus Faber Stradivari Speakers
  • REL No. 25 Reference Subwoofers
  • Devialet 1000 Pro Integrated Amplifier
  • Pass Labs INT250 Integrated Amplifier
  • Pass Labs XP-15 Phono Preamplifier
  • VPI Avenger Plus Turntable
  • VPI JMW 12-3DR Tonearm with Nordost Reference Wire
  • van den Hul Crimson XGW Stradivarius Moving Coil Cartridge
  • Esoteric K-01X SACD/CD Player
  • Aurender N10 Music Server
  • Synergistic Research Element CTS Cable throughout
  • Synergistic Research PowerCell 12 UEF SE Power Conditioner
  • Rix Rax Hoodoo Component Rack
  • Magico QPod Footers

Caveat Emptor

System synergy and personal taste are critical when evaluating high-end audio products and both audiophile and non-audiophile recordings. This review is based on my subjective requirements, my subjective ears, my specific system, and my specific listening room. This combination is only one data point of many that exist out there for these components and recordings. Please consider my comments and analysis accordingly.


In addition to commenting on the sound of this Impex reissue, I thought that it was appropriate to compare it to other releases. Between friends and family, I had a fairly good sample of both digital and analog—please see the list below. Some are still generally available for sale from the usual suspects on the Internet, but many have been deleted from their respected catalogs. For the later case, pricing can be absolutely outrageous on eBay and Discogs, so caveat emptor. If you check Discogs, you will note that over the years there have been literally two or three dozen releases from around the world so this is only a small subset. Any comments or experience with any other labels or formats would be much appreciated.

For me, this is one of those titles that digital never gets quite right except for two exceptions that are close. The original Columbia Legacy CD is a throw away in my opinion. Strident. Thin. Just too tough to listen to despite the amazing appeal of the music. The Sony Gold CD remains slightly bleached and strained. Again, almost impossible to sit through from end to end. The Sony Hybrid SACD is a definite step up. Not hard on the ears but lacks the proper weight and harmonics of the very best vinyl. Still somewhat veiled. The Sony K2 HD CD and the Acoustic Sounds DSD download are the exceptions. Much more rounded and musical, and fairly close to providing the inner detail and dynamics of the very best vinyl. I could live with either and be fairly happy if I was limited to digital. The emotion and connection to the music still comes through.

Vinyl is where it's all at with this title. The original Columbia pressing does not have the liquidity and timbral purity of the audiophile vinyl, but much of the life like presence and coherence is still there. Back in the day, I would purchase every copy that I could find at garage sales and used record stores. Usually just a couple bucks or less, even in mint condition. For birthday and holiday occasions, I would often add a copy as a sweetener along with the primary gift if I knew that the recipient had a turntable in the house. It was always a big hit and much appreciated, especially for those who were new converts.

The Speakers Corner/Phillips reissue seems slightly dark in my system but can still raise the curls on the back of my neck.  For me, the tough choice for "King of the Hill" is between the Impex 180 Gram Numbered Limited Edition and the ORG 45 RPM. My guess is that your subjective priorities will head you in one direction or the other. The ORG has a rich natural presentation with a liquidity that is quite alluring—still plenty of dynamic punch and immediacy. The Impex is slightly more detailed with a locked in sound stage and imaging to die for. No edge. No fatigue. Just very refined and tangible. The Impex would be my choice as it does a better job of defining the differences between the harmonics and sound of all three musicians and guitars—much of which was lost in the digital renditions and only slightly more clarified on vinyl. But I am splitting hairs here on these last two. Both are absolute killer pressings and either would be an outstanding addition to your collection.

Additional Releases For Comparison

  • Columbia Legacy CD
  • Sony Gold CD Longbox
  • Sony SACD Hybrid
  • Sony K2 HD CD
  • Sony/Acoustic Sounds DSD (Single Rate) Download
  • Columbia 150 Gram LP (original pressing)
  • Speakers Corner/Phillips 180 Gram LP
  • Impex 180 Gram Numbered Limited Edition LP
  • Original Recording Group (ORG) 180 Gram 45 RPM LPs

Impex Records