By Jenny Peters and Andy J. Gordon
Two iconic guitar masters joined forces for a six-week tour of the United States that culminated with a fabulous performance at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles, as John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring brought their “The Meeting of the Spirits” tour to a dramatic close on Saturday, December 9, 2017.
McLaughlin is one of the world’s most influential guitarists, composers and bandleaders in the jazz/rock/fusion category, with a career spanning nearly 50 years. He announced that this would be his final U.S. tour – and the revered master went out with a bang at Royce Hall, with a little help from his friends.
Jimmy Herring has been one of the guitar heroes of the American jamband scene for 25 years. His prolific body of work includes stints with Aquarium Rescue Unit, The Allman Brothers Band, The Dead and as current lead guitarist with Widespread Panic. His solo work with the Invisible Whip band veers off into the same jazz/rock/fusion genre that McLaughlin has been exploring for many years.
Herring and the Invisible Whip opened the night’s program. The five-piece band includes like-minded and comparably creative players. Jeff Sipe on drums is a fellow veteran of Aquarium Rescue Unit and the incredible tone he got from his kit, as well as the mesmerizing beats he created during the set, spearheaded the incredible performance.
The set opened with a tribute to the master on a song called “John McLaughlin.” Next up was a fine cover of The Allman Brothers Band’s “Les Brers in A Minor.” Kevin Scott launched into the familiar bass line and Herring played the recognizable melody, while Jason Crosby did a rousing solo on electric violin. Rounding out the extraordinary quintet was Matt Slocum with a stirring solo on his Hammond B3 organ.
The rest of the set featured additional tunes from Herring’s solo career including stirring takes on “Matt’s Funk,” “Jungle Book,” “1911” and “Black Satin.” Each band member took turns playing solos and joined forces for a fine set of music. Herring may be the star, but he is the antithesis of a “guitar god” on stage – he hardly moves and has minimal facial expressions. What he lacks in flamboyance, he dramatically makes up for with his playing. His incredible fret work stood on its own and every person in the audience was seemingly mesmerized by the performance.
After a short break, the crowd was buzzing as John McLaughlin and his current band, the 4th Dimension, took the stage. Ranjit Barot on drums, Etienne M’Bappe on bass and Gary Husband on keys and drums are all well-known composers and recording artists. McLaughlin made sure to share the glory with this diverse mix of talented musicians throughout the set and it translated into a memorable show.
McLaughlin achieved fame in the 70s with The Mahavishnu Orchestra after moving to the U.S. from England. Prior to Mahavishnu, he played guitar on five albums with Miles Davis and was instrumental in launching the jazz/fusion movement. But it was the Mahavishnu Orchestra years that led to his greatest accolades including a Grammy Award and multiple “Guitarist of the Year” and “Best Jazz Guitarist” awards.
The band’s Royce Hall show featured two parts. The first was a set by McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension. The band played songs from McLaughlin’s extensive solo catalog including “Here Comes the Jis” and “New Blues Old Bruise.” While the entire set was amazing, a highlight included a song he wrote in memory of his friend, the late Paco De Lucia, called “El Hobre Que Sabia” (“The Man Who Knew”). De Lucia was a brilliant Spanish guitarist that McLaughlin collaborated with, to great success, many times in the past.
The set ended with a wild duet between Ranjit Barot and McLaughlin. Barot did an inventive scat that interplayed with his drumming and McLaughlin’s rapid-fire guitar acrobatics. Once the other band members joined in, Gary Husband abandoned his keyboard set up and got behind Jeff Sipe’s drum kit. He proceeded to do a raucous duet with Barot. The two drummers battled it out as Barot interspersed his vocal improvisations into the duo’s drum-off. Barot repeated the scat routine later during the final portion of the show that was a showcase of Mahavishnu Orchestra material.
The last part of the night’s performance started when McLaughlin reintroduced Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip. The opening quintet came out and took their places at stage right while McLaughlin and his band continued to perform at stage left. McLaughlin waited until this final portion of the show to break out his gorgeous double-necked PRS guitar – the top neck is comprised of twelve strings, while the bottom neck is a traditional six string. The combined group did a complete set of Mahavishnu classics including “Meeting of Spirits,” “Birds of Fire,” “Trilogy” and “Eternity’s Breath Parts 1 & 2.”
It was an incredible display of virtuoso performances. Herring and McLaughlin took turns on exploratory guitar solos. Both bassists played thumping low-end rhythms and the dueling drummers built a thunderous backbeat. Jason Crosby continued to soar with violin solos and Matt Slocum interjected some unbelievable Hammond B3 organ selections. After over three hours of music, the combined band finally set down their instruments and came to the front of the stage for a well-earned standing ovation.
They exited the stage to thunderous applause and drew even more cheers when they came back out for two more songs. The show culminated with Mahavishnu classics “You Know, You Know” and “Be Happy.” The nine-piece combined band delivered a psychedelic wall of sound that left the sold-out crowd in awe.
John McLaughlin may be done with live performances in the U.S., but the 75-year-old brilliant musician can still deliver an amazing show and he has the respect of many other great artists that would love to play with him. We hope he changes his mind and offers his brilliant, unique musical explorations to future audiences.