It was alumni night at UCLA’s Royce Hall recently, not for graduates of the university, rather it appeared mostly for the alumni of the music scene of the past 40 or so years. They were there to pay tribute to legendary guitarist John McLaughlin, as I comment on public radio 99.1 KBU and websites everywhere.
On stage clutching his beloved double neck guitar he is soon to auction, smiling and strutting, the 75 year old bandleader, composer and master musician, played with passion on what was the final stop of his final U.S. concert tour. Eschewing their age, his fans loved it, intermittently standing and cheering.
Proudly promoted by UCLA’S ever-creative Center for the Art of Performance, the program labeled The Meeting of the Spirits was, as expected, memorable.
Indeed it ran more than three hours, ending with McLaughlin repeating several ending refrains, and reluctantly taking a final bow to sustained applause, hoots and whistles. He was exhausted, and so was the audience.
Sharing the stage lit by blinking strobes, was fellow guitarist Jimmy Herring. He and his band the Invisible Whip opened the evening with a sustained sound straight out of the Seventies., and later joined McLaughlin and his band, the 4th Dimension , in a closing, roof raising, reverberating jam session.
Each performer had their moments, and then some. An extended drum set by Jeff Sipe and Ranjit Barot was in particular riveting, running on it seems into infinity, stopping clocks and sapping breaths .
But it was McLaughlin who was center stage, carrying the evening, playing his guitars and leading the ensemble in the pioneering music he created decades ago with the fabeled Mahavishnu Orchestra; “maha,” meaning great, and Vishnu the name of the Hindu deity .
Describe it as rock, fusion jazz, or whatever, the distinctive sound incorporating technical precision and harmonic sophistication, with a touch of Indian scales, propelled McLaughlin into the upper echelon of music. And judging from the audience at his last concert, into the hearts of music fans.