John McLaughlin is about to wrap up his final US tour December 9th in L.A. He and his band, The 4th Dimension, joined forces with Jimmy Herring and his band, The Invisible Whip, for concerts many in attendance, writers included, have described as the greatest musical experience ever.
McLaughlin, 75, is concerned that creeping arthritis might cause him to have a “bad hair day” on stage at some point. I have arthritis in my hands, too, so I can relate, but I can also tell you that it didn’t seem as if he’s lost a bit of his prowess since I first saw him with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1972. We had the great fortune of seeing the bands perform Saturday, November 25th, at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.
And it would be fair to say that Ruth Eckerd Hall was littered with a who’s who of great musicians from the Tampa area, Orlando and beyond. Apparently, we were in the right place.
The format for each concert was an hour of the Herring band, and hour of the McLaughlin band, and then another hour of the two bands together. Let’s just say it was titanic. By the time all nine musicians were on stage playing the music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, there was no distinguishing between the two, no way to determine where one band ended and the other began.
It seemed clear to most that the torch had been passed as Herring and The Invisible Whip lit immediately into “John McLaughlin” from Bitches Brew, truly rocking with Jason Crosby on electric piano. Many people are only familiar with Herring’s recent work with Widespread Panic (brilliant) and may not realize how jazzy and funky his playing has been with the late Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret., and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Jazz is Dead, and his numerous solo projects.
He has also performed with The Allman Brothers Band, so they next lit into “Les Brers in A Minor,” introduced with great gusto by bassist Kevin Scott, who had a magnificent evening. Crosby had picked up his violin, to everyone’s delight. Matt Slocum sounded great on Hammond B3, followed by a brief drum explosion from Apt. Q-258, also know as Jeff Sipe (my favorite drummer on the planet), and Herring had the last word. I’m not sure I’ve every seen him look as joyous as he did this night.
“Sketch Ballad” allowed everyone to slow down just a bit, with Herring solos separating Crosby on electric piano and Slocum on B3. Slocum then abused his clarinet on “Matt’s Funk.” “Jungle Book Overture” reminded me of a TV mystery show, followed by a real rocker with Crosby again on violin and Slocum moving back and forth between clavinet and synthesizer. Herring and Crosby then tossed solos to each other. The final tune gave everyone an opportunity shine with a great feature for drummer Sipe as punctuation.
The stage was already set with both band’s equipment, so set break was a mere 16 minutes! The moment McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension launched into their first tune, I scribbled in my notebook HOLY SHIT. Again, by my estimation, McLaughlin’s magical ideas were still accompanied by his storied speed. And that band! After McLaughlin’s solo, Etienne M’Bappe, playing with gloves!, twisted our heads around with some simply brilliant playing, followed by Ranjit Barot on drums and konokol, that percussive Indian vocal.
The ballad that followed showcased Gary Husband on both electric piano and clavinet. Songs were featured from a wide range of McLaughlin’s material, including the 2015 album Black Light and this year’s Live @ Ronnie Scott’s. After “New Blues Old Bruise,” McLaughlin introduced “El Hombre Que Sabia,” talking about his friend, the late great Jaco de Lucia (McLaughlin travels today, December 1st, to Mexico for a celebration of de Lucia at the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival). The tune featured brilliant exchanges among the four players.
They closed the 4th Dimension portion of the program with a really heavy tune. McLaughlin and Barot opened the tune, then the band fell in. As Barot took a great drum solo with vocal, Husband left his keyboards and took Sipe’s drum kit! Together, the two of them blew us away with an amazing duet.
It took exactly two minutes for The Invisible Whip to join McLaughlin and bandmates on stage. McLaughlin had strapped on his signature double-neck guitar and proceeded to explode with, appropriately, “Meeting of the Spirits,” the title of the tour. If there was any question about the interplay between the two bands, Scott played bass when McLaughlin soloed, and M’Bappe returned the favor for Herring’s solo.
At this point, my notes pretty much fell apart. The next tune was a bouncing rocker with guitar solos from both men, a great drum feature between Barot and Sipe, and a keyboard battle with Slocum’s B3, Husband’s synths and Crosby’s electric piano (well, something like that). “Birds of Fire” was in there somewhere, as were “Trilogy: Sunlit Path/La Mere de la Mer,” “The Dance of the Maya,” “Earth Ship,” “Be Happy” and “Eternity’s Breath.”
The most amazing sequence — for me — was a long, gorgeous ballad-like tune that just seemed to wrap itself around everyone in the hall. It began with Barot on drums and vocal again, followed by a solo from Herring, more drums from Barot and Sipe, Crosby on violin, and McLaughlin with the last word.
The penultimate song featured vocals from M’Bappe, Crosby and Husband. All the while, there were smiles everywhere, but none as large as Mahavishnu’s. When they finished, the nine musicians met at stage front and locked arms for the traditional bow.
AND THEY ALL TOOK A KNEE!
You would correctly assume that we demanded an encore. One more time, they combined forces to close out the night with one more amazing blaze of talent and music.
A bow and sincere thanks from McLaughlin sent us home delirious. We were just part of history. You can take that to the bank.
For a taste, here is the performance from November 4th at the Capitol Theatre: