In the mid-1980s I would often troll “Bambino” at the corner of Hindustan Park and Gariahat Road in search of new music that the record company may have found fit to send our way. The clerk at the counter, in anticipation of my usual question, would say “Nothing yet, new release expected next month”. It was during one of these forays that I encountered “Natural Elements – Shakti with John McLaughlin”. I’ve wondered about the title a lot, was there ever a Shakti without McLaughlin? At a Spring Fest audio/visual quiz, the quizmaster played a clip which was not music but the announcement at a concert. In his slightly nasal intonation, Zakir Hussain was saying “The next piece is called What Need Have I For This, What Need Have I For That, I Am Dancing……”. Some in the crowd did not wait for the end before blurting out “Shakti, Live at Southampton College, July 5, 1975”. That was the first major Shakti concert, a band formed after the founders Zakir and John did an impromptu session at Ali Akbar Khan’s house in California in 1973. Over the years Shakti disbanded and then came back together as “Remember Shakti”. Even though some of the previous members had moved on, there was never ever a Shakti without John McLaughlin.
A few years after Natural Elements was released, Shakti made their way to Calcutta. The 16-year old me attended his first major concert at the Maidan with some friends. After injecting John M. into the Calcutta psyche, HMV then released Mahavishnu Orchestras “The Inner Mounting Flame” in India. Many of my friends did not like it. I did not appreciate it that much either (appreciate may be a strong term, given that I am not a musician, nor do I have any formal/informal training in music or musicology. Suffice to say that I did not dislike it but I also did not wear out the grooves of the LP I borrowed from a friend).
It was in college that some of my seniors, in particular two future architects, chose to fill in the gaps of my jazz education. I listened to more Mahavishnu, and I was also introduced to yet another avatar of McLaughlin. It was as one of the greats in THE guitar trio, playing the phenomenal concert “Friday Night in San Francisco”. If John had not been a part of Miles Davis ensemble, had not formed Mahavishnu or joined Shakti, his reputation as a jazz legend would have still been cemented purely on the basis of this one performance. He, along with Paco De Lucia and Al Di Meola, electrified the stage with their acoustic guitars.
Also in college, we listened with insatiable appetite to “Southampton College”. “…I Am Dancing At The Feet Of My Lord, All Is Bliss, All Is Bliss”.
Fast forward to a few years later. I am in the US spending whatever money I could afford from my graduate stipend and then my salary at used book and music stores. I filled out my Mahavishnu collection (Birds of Fire, From Nothingness to Eternity, etc.), solo McLaughlins (Belo Horizonte, Electric Guitarist), more Guitar Trio albums and whatever Shakti came out with (researching while writing this, I see that there are so many more albums left that I can waste my money on). In the first half of the 90’s, I saw McLaughlin at a small cozy concert at the Regatta Bar in Boston. The music was very dense and obtuse to my ears and subsequently I remember very little of that concert including who he played with (it was a trio of guitar, bass and piano if I remember correctly). Later in that decade, he reunited with the other two guitar gods on a tour, including a stop at San Francisco 25 years later! This concert was not comparable to the original one, even the format was different. Each one played a solo set, did a duet with each of the others and then, in a short grand finale, all three played together. I don’t know if it was age, reputation, or record company restrictions that prevented them from re-creating the original. It was still a very good concert, the opening bars of Frevo Rasgado made your heart dance, but it lacked the scintillating energy of the original. I know, since I was there in the audience.
In 2017, John McLaughlin announced that he would retire from touring after a final set of shows in the US, including one at the Wilbur Theater in Boston. It was a fitting tribute to his life-long contribution to jazz music which he has helped amplify on so many world stages in various genres. These final shows focused on his work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the group he had formed at the urging of Miles Davis (“Miles was really forceful” John said at the concert) and named after the moniker given to John by his one-time guru Sri Chinmoy. After an opening set by Jimmy Herring, John and his current band The 4th Dimension kicked off things with “Miles Beyond”. After a set of old and new music, they were joined by Herring and his band and proceeded to run through a Mahavishnu catalog. For me, it was a culmination of my devotion to the work of my hero who I have deeply admired since childhood, a long way from my first concert at 16. Now at 50, I have to thank John again for the opportunity to be able to hear the music made by a band that had disbanded before I joined first grade, at what was the last of his live shows.
There are still many more albums to buy and listen to, and my stereo has been stuck on McLaughlin-related items since the concert. However, never else will we have the pleasure of seeing and hearing him play on his PRS twin-neck that he brought out on this tour. There were no overtones of a twilight of an ageing star in the show. As John said, he wanted to go out on a high note while he still had the chops and true to his word, he amazed the sold-out crowd of mostly 50- and 60-year olds. At some point there was an yell “I love you John, don’t retire!”. It’s a good sentiment but I prefer the way he went out in style leaving an indelible impression.