McLaughlin Wows Mahavishnu Devotees at Town Hall in NYC


Guitarists Jimmy Herring (left) and John McLaughlin are on the road for what McLaughlin has said will be his final U.S. tour.

(Photo: Ina McLaughlin)

The sight of John McLaughlin, 75, looking wistfully out at the adoring Town Hall audience after the guitar hero’s final appearance in New York on Nov. 3 was a poignant moment for everyone in attendance.

To older fusion fans who had seen the original Mahavishnu Orchestra in concert in the early ’70s, it was like Game 7 of the World Series. To younger fans who had never had the opportunity to witness the Mahavishnu Orchestra, it was a dream gig. And to McLaughlin—who has fond memories of playing with Miles Davis and Tony Williams Lifetime in his first year in New York in 1969 and launching the Mahavishnu Orchestra at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village in July 1971—it was both sad and triumphant.

“You will never know how much I love New York,” the legendary guitarist told the crowd as he took the stage for the first date of a trek he has dubbed the “Meeting of Spirits” tour, and one that he has said will be his final U.S. tour. It was an epic send-off for the guitar icon.

Following a potent opening set by chops-meister guitarist Jimmy Herring and The Invisible Whip (Jason Crosby on keyboards, Matt Slocum on B-3 and clarinet, Kevin Scott on bass and Jeff Sipe on drums), which kicked off with a faithful reading of Miles Davis’ “Black Satin” (from 1972’s On The Corner) and included the Allman Brothers Band’s “Les Brers In A Minor” (from 1972’s Eat A Peach) and Col. Bruce Hampton & The Aquarium Rescue Unit’s “Tron-dossa” (from 1993’s Mirrors Of Embarrassment), McLaughlin took the stage.

The guitarist was backed by his working band, 4th Dimension—Gary Husband on keyboards and drums, Ranjit Barot on drums, Etienne M’Bappé on bass—which appears on his recent album, Live @ Ronnie Scott’s (Abstract Logix).

Though he is reportedly suffering from the effects of arthritis in his hands and wrist—one of the main reasons why he’s decided to stop touring in America—McLaughlin held nothing back on this night.

On the opening “Kiki” (from 2015’s Black Light) he unleashed his patented machine-gun picking and blistering fusillades on his distortion-laced PRS electric guitar. The audience then exploded after recognizing the first notes from “Miles Beyond” (from Mahavishnu’s 1973 album Birds Of Fire). M’Bappé took an extraordinary bass solo on this M.O. classic while McLaughlin dropped in a quote from Miles Davis’ ’80s anthem “Jean Pierre” at the beginning of his soulful, blues-tinged solo.

Husband provided some churchy organ behind McLaughlin’s lyrical playing on the mournful ballad “Gaza City,” which featured some expressive whammy bar articulations and uncommonly lyrical playing by the guitar great. “El Hombre Que Sabia,” an homage to McLaughlin’s late colleague and friend, flamenco guitar master Paco de Lucia, featured some beautiful interplay between McLaughlin and Husband on piano.

The 4th Dimension set concluded with an exhilarating drum duel between Husband and Barot on “Mother Tongues.” The wild ovation that followed had McLaughlin jumping up and down with his guitar, clearly energized by this New York experience.

The finale had both bands joining together on stage—nine musicians in all—for a set of Mahavishnu Orchestra tunes. Before kicking it off with a thunderous “Meeting Of The Spirits” (from The Inner Mounting Flame), McLaughlin—now playing a custom turquoise double-neck PRS axe that will be auctioned off at the end of his farewell tour, with proceeds going to a Music Therapy Program for children in Ramallah, Palestine—addressed the crowd with a wry but appropriate quote from an Eagles song: “We may lose and we may win, but we will never be here again.”

On a revved-up “Trilogy” (from 1973’s live Between Nothingness & Eternity), Herring stunned with his fluid legato approach as McLaughlin stood by beaming. The calming “A Lotus On Irish Streams” (from The Inner Mounting Flame) had McLaughlin and Herring engaging in some lively call-and-response, with Herring throwing in some countrified pedal steel licks in the process.

A surprise in the set list was the number of rarely heard tunes from 1975’s Visions Of The Emerald Beyond. “Eternity Of Breath, Parts 1 & 2” had Crosby doubling on violin and vocals and also had M’Bappe and Barot joining in on vocals. McLaughlin and Herring both dug in with abandon on this suite, then weaved intricate countermelodies on a graceful rendition of the lovely waltz “Lila’s Dance.”

Drummer Barot was the featured vocalist on a passionate reading of “Earth Ship” (also from Visions), and violinist Crosby was highlighted on a searing version of “Birds Of Fire.” They closed this retrospective on a triumphant note with Mahavishnu’s anthemic “The Dance Of Maya,” only to come back for an encore of “Be Happy” (from Visions).

The Meeting of the Spirits tour continues through November, including a Nov. 22 show at Atlanta Symphony Hall. The tour concludes on Dec. 9 at UCLA’s Royce Hall in Los Angeles. For info, visit McLaughlin’s website.

To hear John McLaughlin and 4th Dimension’s version of “Miles Beyond” from their new album, Live @ Ronnie Scott’s, click here. DB

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