After driving around downtown Boulder for about 20 minutes and finally finding a parking spot eight blocks away, I hurried through the crowds toward the Boulder Theater. The John McLaughlin concert on Saturday just happened to coincide with the city’s annual Christmas parade.
At first the commotion was frustrating, although there was something to be said about the spirit in the downtown holiday air and its parallels to the nature of this evening’s artist.
No slouch, John McLaughlin has over 40 years of top-notch resume material: from playing on several Miles Davis records to heading up the jazz/fusion force of the late seventies, Mahavishnu Orchestra. The 68 year old guitarist was back in town with his current quartet of heavy-hitters, The 4th Dimension.
I grabbed a pint at the bar and proceeded to wander around the hall and take in the scene. The empty stage was back-lit in orange glow. A single amp-stack, two drum sets, and a keyboard rack with a Mac on top waited as the crowd mingled and found their seats.
The house lights went down, and McLaughlin emerged, made his way to center stage, and raised his Godin guitar overhead in greeting as his band mates found their spots and the crowd raised to their feet, cheering. All in attendance knew there was a master in their presence that was sure to deliver the goods.
The set started mellow and focused with “Raju,” from 2008’s Floating Point. McLaughlin led with poignant guitar riffs, over a backdrop of surreal, sustained chords from Gary Husbands synthesizer. As Husband's synth engaged in a duet with his clear, mindful piano, McLaughlin laid down spacey yet specific guitar notes accented by Mark Mondesir’s precise cymbal rolls and crashes and Etienne M’Bapp’s driving bass. McLaughlin shook his hands together in praise amidst a sea of applause. “Boulder...it’s not the same in other places,” he remarked, smiling.
Next up was “Unknown Dissident,” off of 1979’s Electric Dreams, a smooth, stone groove. The gents commanded their instruments with a calm mastery, appearing almost effortless, despite their obvious technical prowess. It was simply fascinating to watch these guys play. McLaughlin and company can move around their instruments with incredible speed and precision, but simultaneously appeared to be in deep meditation, allowing the music to flow through them without a thought.
“Recovery” followed, from the group’s latest release, To The One, an album influenced by John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. The raw intensity and drive of this song honestly made the first two numbers seem like warm-ups. A fast, up-tempo groove developed, over which McLaughlin hustled around his fret board, giving new meaning to the phrase “speed kills.” M’Bappe played full-range, up and down the neck of his bass, reminiscent of the lightning fast dynamics of the late great Jaco Pastorius. He is the only bass player I have ever seen play while wearing gloves, which he said affect the tone of his instrument. The amp stack on the stage clearly belonged to the bass player, primarily evident from the driving groove felt through the floor and my chair. This number drew a peak volume of applause from the mesmerized crowd.
The following song was “The Fine Line,” also from To the One. The opening guitar brought to mind a blatant rockin’ Frank Zappa riff. Husband took a break from the keys, joining Mondesir on drums. McLaughlin soloed over the bass and drum groove and led the tune into a double drum solo. The two drummers took turns, passing solos back and forth in a friendly, complimentary battle of one-ups-man-ship as McLaughlin and M’Bappe silently watched, nodding in approval from the side of the stage.
Things then slowed down to the bluesy “New Blues, Old Bruise,” from the 2006 album Industrial Zen, giving the audience an opportunity to catch their breath, while nonetheless remaining satisfyingly engaged.
Then McLaughlin stepped up to the mic to introduce a song “from one old hippie to another old hippie...a Latin hippie.” “Senor C.S.” was a song written by McLaughlin for Carlos Santana, also off of Industrial Zen. The opening guitar sounded as if McLaughlin had spiritually channeled Santana himself. The keys, bass and drums came in and the four embarked on a whirling onslaught of up and down momentum and ruthless solos, littered with Husband’s stellar key accents.
A cymbal-driven, hard rockin’ “Sully,” written by Gary Husband, led into a flurrying flutter of synthesizer notes of “Hijacked.” A fascinating masterpiece of starts and stops, punctuated by M’Bapp getting hella busy on bass, along with soaring guitar riffs, thoroughly demonstrated that The 4th Dimension indeed know how to swing.
The set ran its course into another Mahavishnu tune, the subtle “Nostalgia” and closed out with “Mother Tongue” segueing into “Five Piece Band” (with another remarkable drum duet) from Floating Point.
The band left the stage and returned minutes later to encore with a soothing “Light at the End of the World” by Piero Piccioni. Thoughtful, delicate piano overlaid with sentimental guitar notes seemed to be the perfect way to say goodnight to the thoroughly satisfied Boulder audience.