I’m not one for nostalgia tours. Watching an artist or band try to recapture the glory of two or three decades past often leaves me cold. The artist is clearly past his prime, and doesn’t have the chops he once had. He often can’t hit the high notes or play with the same level of dexterity. What’s the point?
But there are exceptions. I remember being positively gobsmacked by The Police’s 2007 reunion tour. Not only had they not lost a step, they seemed to pick up a couple! I saw that performance on DVD. I was fortunate enough to see another exception in person.
I never thought I’d get to see legendary fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty in concert. I certainly didn’t think I’d see him play a show around the material he recorded for Atlantic Records between the mid-70s and early 80s. But that’s precisely the reason I made the 300-mile trek to Chicago’s City Winery for Ponty’s sold out August 14 show. My biggest regret is that I didn’t make the August 13 performance, despite the fact I was already in town. Shame on me.
Ponty’s music has special meaning on a personal level. My father introduced me to the violinist by way of his albums Cosmic Messenger (released in 1978) and Enigmatic Ocean (from ’77). I was 12 years old, and that album opened the door to an entirely new musical world. The thought of hearing Ponty play this classic music with a few former band members struck me as an offer I couldn’t refuse, even if I had to travel from St. Louis to see it. Had my father not passed away a decade ago, I can assure you he would have been there with me.
Before I go any further, let me say that City Winery is a MARVELOUS venue. The room holds 300 or so people, is wonderfully lit, and has a great sound system. I didn’t sample the food (which looked delicious), but I fell in love with a wonderfully smooth and wheat-based beer. My only problem is finding it at home, because I’m hooked!
When Ponty took the stage, I was initially stunned by his appearance. He looks fantastic, particularly for a man of 75! Whatever he and John McLaughlin (who is the same age) are doing, I need to get into.
The band (Jamie Glaser on guitar, Wally Minko on keyboards, Keith Jones on bass, and Rayford Griffin on drums) wasted no time, jumping headlong into the “Overture” from Enigmatic Ocean, which became the primary source album for the evening. I was happiest when the band segued into the title track from Cosmic Messenger, one of my absolute favorites. It was the third tune played, and I joked to the man next to me that I could go ahead and leave. Of course, that would have been insane.
Ponty’s chops have lost nothing over the years. As far as I can tell, it was 40 years ago in his mind. He also battled his way through a couple of minor technical glitches that may have left some players frustrated. Ponty powered through it, to the delight of everyone. Once his sound was dialed in, Ponty and company made everything else look relatively easy.
The band visited material from A Taste for Passion, Aura, Mystical Adventures, Open Mind, and Fables, among others. I found myself transported back to my childhood bedroom, where I spent countless hours playing these records through my headphones during the week, and with my dad on the weekends.
Each member of the band was given a chance to shine. Glaser burned through his solos with a deft combination of fire and touch, Minko showed complete ownership of his keyboards, Jones made the bottom end work like nobody’s business, while Griffin showcased his talents best during a gut-busting 10-minute from solo at the end of “The Struggle of the Turtle to the Sea,” the epic suite from Enigmatic Ocean. The band left no doubt. They came to play! I held out hope the band would end its set with “Egocentric Molecules,” an absolute burner from Cosmic Messenger. I didn’t get my wish, but it’s a mild complaint from a spectacular evening. I’ll get over it.
I don’t know if this is Ponty’s farewell tour. Given the energy generated by him and the band, I doubt it. If it is, he definitely went out on top. The perfect capper would be a concert DVD documenting the tour and its remarkable performances. The train rides and hotel room were worth every penny to see this amazing show. This was a nostalgia trip that was second to none.
The only way it could have been better is if Dad had seen it too.