ALCTRAZZ – Official Bootleg Box Set Volume 2: 1983-1984

During their original run, Alcatrazz weren’t especially stable. They recorded three studio albums with three different guitarists, and went from humble beginnings to imploding within five years. Given how short-lived the band’s time in the sun actually was, it’s absolutely staggering how many bootleg recordings were made. In terms of popularity, they never managed to reach the heights of Iron Maiden or Judas Priest, and yet someone pushed the record button surreptitiously whenever and wherever the band appeared.

In 2018, fans were treated to a wealth of these unofficial recordings in an official capacity when HNE Recordings released a 6CD box set made up of various live tapes and studio rehearsals. The quality was often rough, much like old bootlegs you might have sourced from record fairs back in the 80s and 90s, but the historical value of some of the material just couldn’t be ignored. Surprisingly, there was enough material – and seemingly enough interest – for a second volume, and this 5CD set offers fans much more of the same.

The first show takes the listener all the way back to 1983, and a small club show in Huntington Beach, California. It’s immediately clear the recording is sourced from somewhere about halfway back in the audience, as the crowd manages to all but drown out Yngwie Malmsteen’s best efforts on the opening ‘Incubus’, and the subsequent roar into ‘Too Young To Die’ is far bigger than any noise the band happens to be making on the stage. A few bars in, the music sort of wavers behind the semi-drunken roar, in a muddy fashion that is just about clear enough if you know what you’re listening to. Obviously, that’s far from ideal, but a bigger problem comes when Graham Bonnet starts to sing. He hits his opening lines with such force, he’s pretty much all that can be heard! Somewhere around the end of the first chorus, things level out – or your ears adjust – and at the point Yngwie’s first solo hits, this rough recording actually starts to sound vaguely listenable. It’s clear enough to make out that Malmsteen is absolutely on fire; he attacks the neo-classical bits of his lead break with the vigour of three angry Blackmores, obviously keen to belittle Bonnet’s sense of sheer force. Not to be outdone, keys man Jimmy Waldo subsequently launches into an aggressive solo, which obviously hasn’t pleased the fiery tempered Scandinavian, since he later retorts with something even more furious. Somewhere in between, Bonnet raises his volume in sheer one-upmanship and manages to hit some really ugly wrong notes along the way.

The mid tempo of ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ is better suited to the bootleg source. Although everything’s trebly, it’s just about listenable, and the band’s melodic metal sounds solid, even if several of the high notes are well beyond Graham on this night. Early favourites ‘Big Foot’ and ‘Jet To Jet’ come across fairly clearly, but are pretty much bass free, but it’s the more melodic ‘Island In The Sun’ that manages to be a highlight, even if it only briefly sparkles through the murk. Bonnet’s voice is even; Yngwie’s guitar is restrained but prominent, and the bigger keyboard moments show how Alcatrazz’s rarely heard pomp tendencies actually supplied some of their best musical moments. A massive guitar solo from Malmsteen takes pride of place – much to the delight of a very audible audience member or three – despite veering too far into tuneless showboating before ripping off one of Blackmore’s favourite set pieces. On the plus side, a rousing ‘Since You Been Gone’ casts a spotlight on Graham’s superior past, and even if the heavier guitars are no match for the studio version of the classic cut and the backing vocals are hopelessly rowdy, Bonnet’s natural enthusiasm shines through. More Rainbow material, in the shape of lesser hit ‘All Night Long’ and a trashy ‘Lost In Hollywood’, greet the crowd well, and a throwback to MSG’s ‘Desert Song’ goes a long way in supplying something decent with its heavy layers of keys and steadfast riff. Graham goes way off key several times, but as always, it would have all sounded so much better for those attending in person.

In terms of capturing Alcatrazz at their most raw, this show has to be right up there. Career wise, they’re barely out of the starting blocks and yet there are times where they already sound as if they hate each other. Despite the poor audience source, it definitely sounds like it would have been a great gig. Whether it’s something that anyone less than a die hard fan would wade through more than a couple of times is debatable, however, since it is all very rough.

The show from Osaka on disc two – recorded in January 1984 – works around a very similar setlist, but sounds a little flatter all round. Part of this is down to a slightly clearer recorded source; part of it comes from the more sedate audience. There’s a lot of audible clapping on their part, but not always much else. Of course, those desperate to hear every bit of Alcatrazz’s touring history will find enough to enjoy. ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ captures Malmsteen in especially good shape during the intro as he solos above a clean keyboard, and the bulk of the track showcases a band who are much sharper than at the Huntington Beach show. ‘Island In The Sun’ – the then current single – is well received, and despite a huge amount of echo, it’s obvious that Bonnet is on good form on this night. Even the rest of the band take a braver stab at those tricky backing vocals, and a slightly restrained Malmsteen seems to understand that this should remain a band effort.

Those alone give this gig a more balanced feel, but its when blasting their way through Graham’s own ‘Night Games’ – something that only made sporadic appearances in the Alcatrazz setlist – everyone seems most enthused. When armed with something carrying an AOR lilt, Bonnet always sounds at his best, and although nothing about this performance could be called perfect, it’s clearly a set highlight for both band and audience. Similarly, the Rainbow numbers – ‘Since You Been Gone’, ‘All Night Long’ and ‘Lost In Hollywood’ appear to inspire everyone, and even with a far less than clear audio, they give a welcome alternative to the many Rainbow bootlegs that have done the rounds over the years.

By the time the tour had returned to the States in February ’84, the setlist had been tweaked again, and the brilliant ‘Night Games’ had been excised to make room for a fairly ropey cover of Eddie Cochrane’s ‘Something Else’. As you might expect, Bonnet tackles the old rocker with vigour and sounds great, but the rest of the band sound really odd, lumbering through the arrangement with a metallic chug, and Yngwie decides everything would be improved by a few lightning fast breaks, making the experience even more uneven. Their set, at this point, isn’t without merit: the stomp of ‘Big Foot’ is unmistakable, and played with an impeccable heaviness; ‘Jet To Jet’ provides a high octane thrill which, on this night in New Mexico, somehow sounds more like a future echo of Malmsteen’s ‘Odyssey’ than ever before; ‘Evil Eye’ taps into something grandiose without losing any of the metallic momentum, and features some of Malmsteen’s best playing on this box set, and the Rainbow numbers – by now, acting as faithful retainers – clearly lift the audience. With about the best balance of melody and power from any of these early Alcatrazz shows, this third gig is the one that really deserved to be preserved officially. As it is, parts of the source are better than the preceding shows, but it can still be a chore to bend your ears around the distorted mess that’s been sneakily captured on a C-90 cassette. Still, if you’re a massive fan, there’s some obvious gold to be mined.

A show from the legendary Agora Ballroom in Cleveland (May ’84) gives Malmsteen’s Bach solo pride of place and, as you’d expect, his playing is particularly sharp when running through various neo-classical tropes. When it comes to a run of Alcatrazz originals, he appears in an angry mood, which only serves Bonnet well when putting in the kind of ragged vocal fans have come to love. Unlike the bulk of the shows in this box set, this one comes in almost official quality. There are times when the finer points of Bonnet’s performances are lost behind Waldo’s keys, but pretty much everything is loud, clear and with some actual separation. Upon stumbling upon this much better quality recording, it’s likely that fans will feel some consolation for having waded through the three previous discs which, it has to be said, weren’t really good enough to be monetised.

‘Jet To Jet’ attacks with a speed and ferocity rarely found elsewhere; ‘Island In The Sun’ exposes some appalling keyboard playing, but on the plus side, Gary Shea’s bass is immense, and the always welcome ‘Night Games’ plays like a punchy AOR treat despite Bonnet drowning in reverb and the audience taper insisting on singing the chorus at the top of his lungs! MSG’s ‘Desert Song’ sounds a little dark and muddy in places, but that seems to suit the song’s moodier intents, especially with Graham in better voice and Waldo tapping into some great keyboard work, presumably trying to make up for his terrible ham-fistedness elsewhere. Malmsteen offers a pleasingly tasteful solo too, so in many ways, these five minutes appear to be one of the great Alcatrazz snapshots. With the set bulked out by a couple of Rainbow classics, even with Bonnet very clearly struggling on parts of ‘Lost In Hollywood’. it gives fans a much clearer glimpse of the live and unfiltered Alcatrazz experience.

For the final disc, it’s back to the rough quality audience source for an incomplete recording from New Jersey. Incomplete it may be, but a classics give a reasonable idea of how this show played out. It doesn’t provide a drastically different experience to the Huntington or Osaka sets, but completists who fancy hearing yet more lo-fi recordings of ‘Island In The Sun’, ‘Hiroshima’, ‘Night Games’ and ‘Since You Been Gone’ probably won’t consider it time wasted. At the end of this final disc, the archives have been further plundered for a couple of oddities. A seventeen minute interview with the band (originally issued as the b-side of a promo 12”) comes under the category of nice to have, but like the similar archive interview with Lou Gramm on his solo anthology (also available from Cherry Red), it’s a one-time listen. A short radio advert with Graham warning against the risks of drink driving (tying in with the Alcatrazz track ‘Will You Be Home Tonight’) is definitely a cult find, but again, hardly essential.

Disc 5 comes into its own at the eleventh hour with a trio of instrumental demos recorded during the mid 80s. ‘Instrumental 1’ (offered in two takes) really shows off the melodic side of Alcatrazz at this point with a slow AOR/blues hybrid that sounds like something destined to become the musical score for a love scene for a Canon Films action thriller from those bygone days. There are a couple of glimpses of something here that just might have spawned ‘The Witchwood’, although it’s not entirely similar. ‘Instrumental 2’, meanwhile, shows how far the band had come from their full throttle metal in ’83. Another AOR tinged musical sketch, this drum machine helmed, mid tempo rocker sounds more like a work in progress from Aldo Nova than Alcatrazz, but again, suggests that Danny Johnson could have helped to steer the band into a far more commercially lucrative place, if only this line-up had been allowed to settle.

As with the first bootleg box, this collection is of chief interest to the hardcore Bonnet fan. To a lesser extent, there’s a reasonable amount of material worth hearing for those who’d like to experience more of Yngwie’s early work and the nuts and bolts surrounding the seemingly volatile ‘No Parole’ tour. Steve Vai fans have – somewhat predictably – been left wanting once again, but even without the ‘Disturbing The Peace’ period being represented, this is a release that doesn’t skimp on quantity. The quality, of course, is another matter: the Agora Ballroom set is superb, but the rest – not so much. Those looking for a perfect live document certainly won’t have much need for this, and should pick up the complete edition of ‘Live In Japan 1984’ instead, assuming they haven’t already done so. Much as before, though, for the fan who just wants a slice of Alcatrazz history regardless of an audibly challenging nature, this offers a few rare treats.

Buy the box set here: ALCATRAZZ – Bootleg Box Set, Vol 2

June/July 2022