Updated: Aug 26
photo by Bill Milkowski
Guitar god of my youth, John McLaughlin, now 81, sat crosslegged on the carpeted dais floating in the middle of a spare stage at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York. It was yet another stop on Shakti’s international 50th Anniversary Tour, which commenced in the States on August 17 in Boston and continues into September with stops in California, Oregon, Illinois, Michigan and Texas. Looking aged but elegant as always, John-ji engaged his audience of 1400 adoring fans — many, like myself, who had witnessed Shakti in concert during their initial Stateside tour in 1976 or caught the later iteration of the group, Remember Shakti, in 2001 — by reminiscing about his own first time playing in the historic and Byzantine theatre built in 1926. It was 1970 when McLaughlin landed there with Tony Williams Lifetime, led by the preternaturally gifted drummer who had left Miles Davis’ second great quintet to form his own version of Cream; in essence, launching the fusion movement in the process. That was before John had formed Mahavishnu Orchestra, the seminal fusion juggernaut acclaimed for its complex, intense music melding rock, jazz and Indian classical music. That band had also played at The Capitol Theatre back in the day.
photo by Lauren Zarambo
But on this August night in 2023, McLaughlin was hailed as a returning hero, and he delivered in dramatic, inspired fashion alongside his Shakti bandmates — tabla master Zakir Hussain, violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan, percussionist Selvaganesh Vinayakram and glorious vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, a huge pop star in his native country and leading composer in Indian film music. Together they performed material from Shakti’s latest recording, This Moment (Abstract Logix), the group’s first studio album in 46 years, along with some memorable nuggets from the band’s past.
My own first memory of McLaughlin, whom I have seen in concert countless times in various settings over the past five decades -- Mahavishnu Orchestra, One Truth Band with Sonship on drums, The Guitar Trio with Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia, The Translators with Katia Labeque on synths and Tommy Campbell on drums as well as a mid '80s incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a trio with Trilok Gurtu and either Jonas Hellborg, Kai Eckhardt or Dominique Di Piazza on bass, his Heart of Things band with bassist Matthew Garrison, tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas, keyboardist Jim Beard and drummer Dennis Chambers, his
organ trio with Joey DeFrancesco and drumming legend Elvin Jones, the Five Peace Band with Chick Corea, Christian McBride, Kenny Garrett and Brian Blade, and his 4th Dimension Band -- goes back to May 11, 1973, when the Mahavishnu Orchestra rode into my hometown of Milwaukee on the strength of
the group's second scintillating album, Birds of Fire, released in January of that year. Mahavishnu shared a bill that pivotal night at the Milwaukee Auditorium with Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention, who premiered new material from their upcoming album, Over-Nite Sensation, which would be released in September of that year. And while I was primed to hear Zappa, a guitar hero in his own right, I came away from that concert being completely blown away and awed by this angelic man dressed all in white who played with the ferocity of a demon.
Around the same time that the Mahavishnu Orchestra played the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park (on Aug. 17 and 18, 1973, documented in the live album Between Nothingness & Eternity), McLaughlin performed a one-off concert with an acoustic Indian flavored ensemble at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in midtown Manhattan. It was the first public performance of Shakti. I would later see the band on their first Stateside tour when they opened for Weather Report on May 18, 1976 at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee. And I subsequently caught concerts of a later edition of the band, dubbed Remember Shakti (with the marvelous mandolin maestro U. Shrinivas having replaced violinist L. Shankar in the group) in various settings, including the Montreal Jazz Festival in 1999 and 2001 as well as at the Beacon Theatre in New York City in 2000.
Reverting to their original name of Shakti, a new iteration of the group toured India, then Europe this summer, and finally came to the States in anticipation of the release of their latest recording, This Moment, on the Abstract Logix label. And for longtime Shakti fans like myself, their stop at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY (about a 90-minute drive from my home in West Hartford, CT) was a peak experience.
Opening the concert with an adrenalized “5 in the Morning, 6 in the Afternoon” (from 2000’s Remember Shakti), it was clear from the outset that McLaughlin’s legendary chops were very much in tact. This was a great relief to fans who had mourned his announced retirement from touring in 2017 due to complications from arthritis in his hands. But John-ji was in peak form in Port Chester, shredding like the guitar hero of old on his tastefully distorted Paul Reed Smith electric guitar (as opposed to his origiinal Abe Wechter-built acoustic Shakti guitar with scalloped fingerboard and sympathetic drone-strings transversely across the soundhole). In fact, McLaughlin performed in jaw-dropping fashion throughout the volcanic set, seemingly merging his Mahavishnu past and Shakti present.
It was also interesting to note throughout the concert how often McLaughlin worked downhome Delta blues phrases into the fabric of this East-meets-West melange, as he did on this opening number which alluded to the riff from Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” at times throughout “5 in the Morning, 6 in the Afternoon.”
McLaughlin kicked off the buoyant “Zakir” (from 1999’s Remember Shakti) with some stunning solo guitar that highlighted his beautiful chordal melody playing. He was soon joined by lyrical violinist Rajagopalan, a new addition to the Shakti lineup, replacing the late mandolin master U. Srinivas, who died eight days after having a liver transplant in 2014. Rajagopalan’s singular solo flights were not only astounding, his tight chemistry with McLaughlin brought back memories of the group’s original violinist L. Shankar. Following that gentle piece, the band tackled “Ann” (from The Believer), a more aggressive number that incorporated Mahavishnu-esque unisons between guitar and violin, underscored by the stunning rhythm tandem of Hussain and Selvaganesh. Violin and tabla then engaged in some rapid-fire call-and-response statements that were staggering in their sheer speed, crisp articulation and intensity.
Vocalist Mahadevan, a regal presence with a Pavarotti-sized authority on the bandstand, was brought on stage as “the fifth member of Shakti” for a beautiful rendition of the traditional South Indian kriti, “Giriraj Sudha,” a calming number from the new album that developed into a whirlwind Carnatic jam midway through that was brimming alternately with impossibly tights unisons and exhilarating call-and-response lines between violin and voice. These exhilarating exchanges were once again spurred on by the churning pulse of Hussain’s remarkable tabla work locked in an indelible hookup with Selvaganesh’s kanjira (South Indian frame drum).
“Shrini’s Dream,” a tribute to the late mandolin maestro that also appears on This Moment, was a showcase of some sizzling speed licks by McLaughlin and dazzling unisons between Mahavedan and Rajagopalan. Next up was the beguiling “Sakhi,” a glorious number from McLaughlin’s orchestral pandemic album, Is That So? that showcased Mahadevan’s transcendent vocal powers. Midway through this majestic tune, the band broke into a double-time flurry, unleashing more Mahavishnu-esque fusillades.
Their gentle rendering of the plaintive melody “Lotus Feet” (from Shakti’s 1976 debut album) was met with knowing applause by this Capitol Theatre crowd. They followed with the buoyant “Bending the Rules” (from This Moment), involving more intricate unisons between voice and violin at a breakneck pace.
“Finding the Way” (from The Believer) was laced with blue notes from the guitarist, including a funky/catchy chordal riff that sounded borrowed from Lee Morgan’s boogaloo hit, “The Sidewinder.” McLaughlin even snuck in a little taste
from the Mahavishnu Orchestra song “You Know You Know” (from 1971’s The Inner Mounting Flame) at the :50 mark of the video below before unleashing on a flurry of mind-boggling unison lines that were strictly in an Indian mode.
They closed with a rousing rendition “La Danse du Bonheur” (from 1977’s Handful of Beauty) that included an explosive display of konnokol (the art of performing percussion syllables vocally in South Indian Carnatic music, or a kind of Indian scat singing, if you will) by the incomparable battery of Hussain and Selvaganesh. And they encored with the hauntingly beautiful “Bridge of Sighs” (a tune from 1977’s Natural Elements), reminiscent in tone of McLaughlin’s classic ballad “Follow Your Heart.”
Between the new album and Shakti's triumphant 50th Anniversary Tour, it is clear that this pioneering force in world music is still vital after all these years.
photo by Lauren Zarambo