Steve Lukather -- _Luke_ (Miramar, 1997)

_Luke_ is the first domestically-distributed solo album from Steve "Cool Hand" Lukather. Lukather is a first-call session musician, having worked with nearly every major pop and rock star in Los Angeles, from Michael Jackson to Don Henley to Eddie Van Halen, but his primary gig has been as lead guitarist (and now lead vocalist) of pop supergroup Toto.

None of this diversity can really prepare a listener who came to the album expecting a bright batch of fluffy hard pop from the Toto guitar hero. _Luke_ is anything but bright and fluffy, a rewarding, hard-rocking slab of tight and expansive tunes (12 tracks spanning 69 minutes) that showcase Lukather's stylish updating of his sound for more modern tastes, an impressive fusion of the many facets of his tremendous talent.

Part of the soulful, visceral appeal of _Luke_ comes from its being recorded almost totally live, a rawness that complements the compositions and amply demonstrates Lukather's abilities as both songwriter and axehandler. There is a bit of blues-club aura to the record from start to finish (especially on the live finale, a stunning cover of Jeff Beck's "The Pump"), keeping the whole session more weighty and organic than one might expect from such a studio-perfect stalwart. Particularly impressive is the Robin Trower-esque riffing on the slinky funk groove of "Always Be There For Me" and the sweet leads on the vaguely Floydian blues of "Tears Of My Own Shame".

_Luke_ stretches beyond blues, too, with the modern rock jangle and twang of "Hate Everything About U" (co-written with neo-honky-tonker Rodney Crowell), and the solid balladry and sweet vocal hooks of "Reservations to Live" and "Open Your Heart" keeping the album's feel from growing stale. Every track succeeds in its own way, balancing the tight songwriting and loose performance, always offering vocal hooks to draw in the listeners who aren't already gripped by the guitar heroics.

In some ways, _Luke_ extends the direction of Toto's most recent album, the excellent _Tambu_, hard-edged and frequently funky. _Tambu_ was a true Toto album, however, sweetly-produced keyboard and subtle percussion flourishes intact, whereas _Luke_ weaves the same influences into a different, guitar-dominant story, making it a departure from Lukather's past work (including two solo albums not released in the USA but very well-received in Europe). It may be tough to keep his _Toto IV_ fan base around him, but fans of solid heavy rock and rootsy guitar heroics should give _Luke_ a look and find out more about this well-traveled new gun in town. It is deep, engaging, satisfying to those of us who had high expectations for Lukather, and a compelling introduction to the new audience he richly deserves.


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