Orchestrated Mahavishnu: John McLaughlin & Co. at Michigan Theater


Sphinx Virtuosi by Kevin Kennedy

Jimmy Herring (left in both photos) played a set with his new band, The Invisible Whip, before joining John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension to fire up some Mahavishnu Orchestra burners. Photos by Kim Allegrezza/Mistry Grove Photography (left) and Ina McLaughlin (right).

John McLaughlin’s farewell tour bus pulled into Ann Arbor on Wednesday night and delivered the goods with a program titled Mahavishnu Revisited. McLaughlin was backed by The 4th Dimension for most of the show, with openers Jimmy Herring and The Invisible Whip joining them on stage at the Michigan Theater for a symphony of sound dedicated to exploring the music of Mahavishnu Orchestra.

The show opened with a set by Jimmy Herring (Aquarium Rescue Unit, Widespread Panic) and his new band, The Invisible Whip. Herring ambled onstage with little pomp, clad in drab flannel and looking like a rock 'n' roll Johnny Appleseed. His band followed and they launched right into a gritty blues jam. Throughout the entire set, the band spoke not a single word from the stage, letting the music do all the talking.

The Invisible Whip is a quintet: guitar, bass, drums, Fender Rhodes, and organ/clavinet. Jason Crosby was a standout on Rhodes, and peppered the set with occasional violin as well, never losing the pied-piper twinkle in his eye. The band dusted off some older tunes from Herring’s solo albums, Lifeboat and Subject to Change Without Notice, interspersing them with new compositions he has been working on for their debut record as The Invisible Whip.

It was a playful set with a lot of textural variety. Matt Slocum’s swampy B3 grooves and Crosby’s crunchy Rhodes set the table for soaring solo work by Herring, while bassist Kevin Scott and drummer Jeff Sipe propelled the band forward. Mixing genres with freewheeling ease, they treated the Michigan Theater like everything from a jazz club to an arena. The mood was one of joy and mischief, a vibe I hope the upcoming record captures. After a no-holds-barred hard-rock closer, bassist Scott tried to introduce the band through a dead mic. When no tech support was forthcoming, he glanced over at Herring, who simply shrugged before giving the audience a grin and a wave, then shuffling offstage.

McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension arrived on the scene after intermission to a thunderous welcome. They made it clear they were saving the Mahavishnu material for the third set -- a joint performance by both bands -- by playing a range of selections from McLaughlin’s solo career as well as their collaborative work as The 4th Dimension. Among the more recent compositions was a tune intended for Paco de Lucía called "El Hombre Que Sabía (The Man Who Knew)," which McLaughlin performed in the flamenco guitarist's memory. The current iteration of the 4th Dimension includes longtime McLaughlin collaborator Gary Husband, bassist Étienne M'Bappé, and drummer Ranjit Barot.

Husband -- who is equally at home behind a drum set or keyboard -- brought a drummer’s sensibility to the keys, unleashing their full percussive potential. M'Bappé, meanwhile, demonstrated his willingness to open the wormhole with a galactic bass solo in the third tune of the set. For his part, Barot charted a steady course through rhythmically shifting waters with a combination of drum kit and vocal percussion.

It is always a thrill to see such virtuosic musicians pay so much attention to one another and stay so completely engaged even when sitting a section out. Throughout both The 4th Dimension set and the Mahavishnu supergroup finale, any time a given performer was less involved in whatever was happening musically on stage, they counted out mixed-meter rhythms with exaggerated claps and hand motions. Besides simply being entertaining to watch, this helped them keep hold of the complicated rhythms while also making the time signature clearer to the audience.

Needless to say, McLaughlin himself was in his element. He handled himself with composure and grace but certainly wasn’t afraid to let on that he was having a blast. Never letting his signature rapid-fire technique overshadow his dynamic musicality, he provided loose direction to the ensemble, intermittently conducting with capricious hand gestures. The performers sharing the stage with him were hyperattentive to his signals. This was especially evident when Herring and the Invisible Whip returned to the stage to conjure the spirit of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Herring, Crosby, McLaughlin, and Husband played blisteringly fast and involved lines in jaw-dropping unison, as though drawing them out from some deep, commonly held source. The crowd was fully engaged at this point, leaping to their feet after nearly every piece. McLaughlin and company had come prepared to please. The exuberant closing set sampled evenly across the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s best-loved and most iconic material, from The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire to Visions of the Emerald Beyond. Some standouts were "Meeting of the Spirits," "The Dance of Maya," and an expansive rendition of "Eternity’s Breath."

Goodbyes can be tough, but McLaughlin summoned up a fond and generous farewell for the fusion lovers and Mahavishnu followers of southeast Michigan.

Nicco Pandolfi is a freelance writer and a graduate student in Information Science at the University of Michigan. He mainly writes about what he mainly thinks about: music and food.