And to think: I almost skipped this one.
I knew legendary guitarist John McLaughlin was on the road with his amazing band, the 4th Dimension. I knew he was sharing the bill with guitarist Jimmy Herring, a virtuoso in his own right. I also knew the 75-year-old McLaughlin had declared this his last U.S. tour. Worst of all, I knew the show wasn’t coming to St. Louis.
If I wanted to see John McLaughlin, then I was going to have to go to him. And that’s how I found myself at Schermerhorn Symphony Hall in Nashville, Tennessee on November 21, where I spent an evening watching a jazz-fusion legend blow the roof off a building designed for classical music, located in the country music capital of the world.
First and foremost, let me say this: the Schermerhorn is a fantastic venue, especially for someone leery of a larger room. I lost my taste for big concert crowds some time ago, so I was more than a touch apprehensive at first about this gig. My dread was compounded by the fact that I bought my ticket only two days in advance. So even though I scored a floor seat, I was halfway back and far right. Still, my sight line was decent, and I was relatively comfortable. Best of all, the sound wasn’t too loud. My earplugs weren’t necessary.
The sound quality was solid, though not spectacular. The guitars got a little lost in the overall mix at times, and there was a bit of an echo. But I give the sound crew all the credit in the world for making a concert hall designed for cellos and bassoons work for two guitar-driven fusion bands. For the most part, I could hear every instrument when I needed to.
Jimmy Herring and The Invisible Whip took the stage first, but it would be unfair to call them an opening act. This band can flat-out SMOKE, and is more than capable of holding its own against any and all comers. They would drive that point home later in the evening.
Herring didn’t say a single world all night, but he didn’t have to. Cliche as it sounds, the man let his guitar do all the talking, and that was plenty. The band set the tone from the get-go by opening — appropriately — with “John NcLaughlin,” from Miles Davis’s BitchesBrew album. Then and there, I knew the near sold out crowd was in for something special.
The Invisible Whip (Jeff Sipe on drums, Jason Crosby on keyboards and violin, Matthew Dutot Slocum on keyboards, and Kevin Scott on bass) played with a relaxed intensity born of good chemistry. They made the difficult seem simple, and the entire set look like a blast! Scott was the most demonstrative of the bunch, looking as though he could barely contain the unbridled joy that is playing in The Invisible Whip.
The band absolutely owned the stage during its set, working a highly receptive and energetic crowd into a near frenzy. Their set seemed to end all too quickly. But we barely had time to rest, because John McLaughlin was about to rip our faces off.
For the second time this year, a 75-year-old man absolutely blew my mind with his abilities (the first was drummer Jack DeJohnette playing with Hudson a month or so ago). John McLaughlin wasted no time reminding us why he is consistently recognized as one of the finest guitarists of all time.
McLaughlin and his band, 4th Dimension (Gary Husband on keyboards and drums, Etienne Mbappe on bass, and Ranjit Barot on drums and vocals) absolutely laid waste to the stage, much to the delight of a highly receptive audience. The guitarist fired off single-note runs at breakneck speed, and did it with all the ease of taking a casual stroll in the park. It was a while before I could remove my jaw from the floor.
But this was no shred-a-thon. McLaughlin played with purpose, and was more than willing to get out of the way and let the rest of the band put their incredible talents on display. It was almost as much fun to watch the guitarist bounce around with the energy of a man half his age, smiling broadly when one of his band members nearly stole the show.
Mbappe displayed an incredible sense of groove and melody, playing bass with a pair of thin gloves that left me wondering how he managed to get such a powerful sound without being able to completely feel the stings. Husband (whom I heard playing drums with Allan Holdsworth in the ’80s) showed me another side of his musical skills via the keyboards, even as he seemed to be drumming vicariously through Barot at times (the two shared a brief and spectacular duet). Speaking of the drummer, Barot appeared to be casually turning his kit into shrapnel while using a vocal style I can only describe as Vishnu Scat, a highly rhythmic staccato sound that synced beautifully with his drumming. It has to be heard to be believed. The audience ate the band’s performance up. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a show featuring so many spontaneous standing ovations.
But the bands were just getting warmed up.
Before we knew it, Herring and company came back to the stage, and the two bands became a 21st century Mahavishnu Orchestra. I’m quite certain the roof came at least a foot off the building as the bands launched into the classic “Meeting of the Spirits” from 1971’s The InnerMountingFlame. This was followed by “Birds of Fire” and other Mahavishnu classics.
If the band was having trouble with the intricate, complex music on hand, they were having a hard time showing it. Every musician was right on the money, giving each composition precisely what it needed. And while all of these men have been around John McLaughlin for who knows how long, make no mistake: each knew he was in the presence of GREATNESS. The look on Herring’s face when McLaughlin soloed said it all. He knew this was a privilege unlikely to come again any time soon.
Believe me, Jimmy, we all felt the same way.
McLaughlin seems adamant that this is his last tour of the United States. The man has other things to do with the rest of his life, and he can’t wait to get on with them. I can’t help but respect that. Still, there is about to be a tremendous void in the music world. It will take more than a few musicians to fill it.
The full November 4 show is available on YouTube. It’s a solid performance, but it’s not the same. As much as I hate to say it, you had to be there. And I very nearly wasn’t. I was stuck on the thought of three five-hour drives in three weeks, gas, food, and lodging. But something made me go through with it. I knew I had to make this show above all others. My little voice wouldn’t leave me alone until I had a ticket and a hotel reservation.
In the end, it was worth every penny.
(A big thank you to Dan Campbell for the photo of John McLaughlin. Lucky for me, his seat was much closer than mine!)