David Kronemyer

Capsule Review – John McLaughlin at Royce Hall

December 10th, 2017 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

John McLaughlin played the final concert of his farewell US tour last night at UCLA’s Royce Hall. It was billed as a return to the Mahavishnu Orchestra from the early 1970s. This was plenty of motivation for me to attend, as I saw them several times back then, and counted myself as a fan.

The opening act was a guitarist named Jimmy Herring with his band The Invisible Whip. He evidently is credible in jam-band circles, but he didn’t do much for me; it was a lot of mindless, riff-based noodling.

After an intermission, McLaughlin came on with his current band The 4th Dimension. Initially he had some problems with on-stage monitoring, and his guitar tone was off. But they settled in to a credible if not great performance. One aspect I really liked was their sense of dynamics and modulation; instead of a relentless onslaught, they were able to transition from delicate passages to heavier, dissonant chording. The bassist, Etienne M’Bappé, was phenomenal – anchoring the music with amazing skill and technique, instead of overpowering it, as many bass players tend to do. When he started playing, the drummer, Ranjit Barot, initially reminded me of Billy Cobham – yes, unfortunately, comparisons are inevitable – but this soon was dispelled as he segued into a somewhat looser style. The keyboardist – Gary Husband – was excellent.

There were, however, several problematic moments. The first came when Mr. Barot started vocalizing nonsense syllables in syncopation with thrashing his drums. It took me a few moments to recognize this sounded exactly like the Troll-esque speech that Thijs van Leer, keyboardist for the Dutch band Focus, used to do in the song “Hocus Pocus.” Once was enough – it became annoying when he did it a second time later in the performance. Second, when he wasn’t playing, Mr. Husband was making a number of confusing motions with his hands, evidently to keep time with the off tempi of many of the songs. But was he doing this to keep Mr. Barot on beat, or simply to express his enthusiasm for the work? Third, there came a time when Mr. Husband moved over to a second drum set, and he and Mr. Barot engaged in an overly-long and uninspired drum duet. This was entirely dispensable, and should have been eliminated from the program. Fourth, the entire concert was marred by a disruptive light show that bore no discernible relationship to the music. It was enough to make you ask, “what were they thinking?” – whoever was working the light board should have kept his mitts off of it, rather than randomly pressing buttons to see what they’d do.

After about an hour of this, Mr. Herring and The Invisible Whip returned to the stage, joining McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension for some more Mahavishnu Orchestra works. Nine people in all, with two bass players and two drummers. McLaughlin strapped on a custom PRS double-neck guitar, so reminiscent of when he wielded the mighty Gibson SG. Most of what ensued was pretty good; at times, the mix turned to sonic sludge, as might be expected with two bass players and two drummers. Fortunately, much of the time they traded off in different permutations, so everybody was playing at the same time only for crescendo moments. Noteworthy was Jason Crosby’s performance on violin – adding sonic touches that would have been played by Jerry Goodman from the original line-up. Come to think of it, he would have made a good addition to The 4th Dimension band, which sounded from time to time like something was missing, and it became apparent from the combined bands, that this was the absent ingredient.

Overall I would give the concert a B+. It got me thinking about the recent King Crimson concert at the Greek Theater, which I also attended. In the early 1970s, Robert Fripp and John McLaughlin were the two progressive guitar gods, and I eagerly absorbed every note. The 2017 version of King Crimson successfully reimagined its earlier repertoire, using it as the starting point for fluent, chaotic improvisation, ultimately returning to the original source material. The 2017 version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, however, simply reiterated its earlier repertoire, in most cases attempting to reproduce it note-for-note. This difference between reimagination versus reiteration is key here. While I’m glad I went, I guess I was hoping for more subtlety and nuance in McLaughlin’s performance – incorporating the wisdom he’s accumulated during the intervening years, and then deploying it as he looked back on the work that justifiably made him famous.