A Fan's Notes: A Mind-blowing McLaughlin Memory Print
Wednesday, 07 February 2007 12:37
Image By Chip Lovitt
For me, the best and most memorable concerts are like revelations. Like when you hear some amazing musician stretch the boundaries of a sound, style or technique, and take them to a new place, one you hadn’t imagined before. Or when a guitarist expands the sonic possibilities of his or her instrument to create unique and previously unheard sounds.

I’ve had more than my share of those moments—the first times I saw Jimi Hendrix, Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Duane Allman dueling with Dickie Betts, or Michael Hedges, just to name a few.

However, in terms of discovering the power and potential of the electric guitar, one concert stands out in my mind—not only because it was a great show, but because it was an adventure, a fondly remembered road trip a bunch of us guitar-crazed college kids took one cold, dark winter night some 35 years ago. The show was a major eye-opener in terms of my education as to what an electric guitar could do. And it was capped off by a cool post-concert experience to boot.

It was in the winter of 1972. I was a college sophomore in a frozen upstate New York town twenty miles south of the Canadian border. A bunch of us caught wind of a good triple bill at RPI—Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute—in Troy, New York. The show featured Frampton’s Camel (Peter Frampton’s post-Humble Pie band), John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and the headliner was the always entertaining, always rocking J. Geils Band. J. Geils had helped close the Fillmore East back in the summer of 1971, and the band was on a roll, reigning as one of the favorite party bands on the college circuit.

We had already heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut album, Inner Mounting Flame album by then, and we knew that there was something new and amazing going on here. So we piled into a roommate’s huge, pre-SUV era Ford Station wagon (complete with fake wood paneling on the sides), and hit the road. After nearly three hours of driving down snow-covered roads through the Adirondack Mountains, we found ourselves sitting on a cavernous and cold gym floor in front of a huge elevated stage.

Supporting his Winds of Change LP, Peter Frampton and his band delivered a solid set that was a preview of the reception he would get in a few short years. Frampton was still four years away from issuing his mega-selling live album, Frampton Comes Alive, but he was fresh out of Humble Pie, and like that band, he rocked that night with authority, taste, and a batch of terrific tunes.

Nothing, not even our repeated listenings to Inner Mounting Flame, prepared us for what came next. The Mahavishnu Orchestra took the stage and proceeded to blow the roof off that noisy college gym.

From the opening notes of “Meeting of the Spirits,” we could tell something new and wildly original was going on. I had never seen anyone play as fast, as powerfully, or as adventurously as McLaughlin did. Ripping a torrent of rapid-fire single notes and clusters of jazz-rock chords out of his doubleneck 6- and 12-string Gibson electric, McLaughlin was on fire.

The music was a genre-blending mix that defied easy categorization. It blended jazz elements McLaughlin had honed during his stay in Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew-era band, high-volume, Hendrix-style rock sounds, quirky, shifting rhythms, and out-of-this-world instrumentals laced with traces of Indian classical music. McLaughlin was easily the most intense and original guitar player I’d ever heard up to that point. The chord progressions, like the ones he was using in “Dance of Maya,” were so far removed from the basic I-IV-V’s I’d been flogging for years, that my head began to spin. And dressed all in white, McLaughlin—a disciple of Sri Chinmoy at the time— almost seemed like a mystical figure on stage.

And McLaughlin was not the only virtuoso in the band.

Jan Hammer on Fender Rhodes and synthesizer was more than a match for Mahavishnu. Bending notes and doubling McLaughlin’s lightning-fast lines, he also seemed to be taking his instrument to a place where few keyboardists had gone before.

Billy Cobham was like no other drummer I had ever seen either. Built like an NFL linebacker, Cobham played with a power and intensity that was light years beyond 99% of the rock drummers I’d previously heard. Plus, he had the biggest drum kit I’d ever seen, complete with a huge gong behind his kit. When he and bassist Rick Laird locked in behind the band, the sound was massive.

To those of us whose idea of violin was either classical violin or bluegrass fiddle, Jerry Goodman’s electric violin also seemed like a radically new sound as well.

By the time the Mahavishnu Orchestra played “Awakening,” we knew we had experienced one. It was like our ears had been opened for the first time to a new style and sound, one that would soon snowball into what would become known as fusion in the coming months and years. After bowing humbly with hands clasped in a prayer-like pose, McLaughlin left the stage, leaving us dazed but elated.

Normally, it would have been party time, rocking out to J. Geils’ hits like “Whammer Jammer,” “Looking for a Love,” and “First I Look at the Purse.” I was and still am a big J. Geils fan, but that night their music just didn’t hold us. After McLaughlin’s set, it was hard to get excited about blues-rock, no matter how right and tight it was. After the Mahavishnu Orchestra, J. Geils seemed like a bar band—not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Somehow that night, the pre-conceived limits and boundaries our 19-year-old, guitar-addled brains previously recognized got blown away and utterly demolished. So we left halfway through J. Geils’ set, and hit the road for a midnight ride back up to the frozen wastes of New York’s North Country. But first, we needed gas. So we stopped at a gas station near the entrance to the NY State Thruway.

As we filled the tank, our breath turning into icy vapor clouds in that frigid upstate cold, a white Econoline van pulled up to the pump next to us. A man in white stepped out of the van to ask us how to get back to New York City. We could barely believe our eyes. It was Mahavishnu himself. Asking us for directions.

The guy had just completely and utterly blown away our all our schoolboy notions about jazz and rock, and shown us a new dimension in electric guitar playing and he was asking us for direction? Luckily, we knew where the southbound entrance ramp to the Thruway was, and we pointed Mahavishnu in the right direction. Those of us who were not struck speechless, complimented him on the show, and he humbly thanked us before driving off. We were still totally buzzed by the encounter when we hit the college campus at 3:30 AM.

Sometimes people ask me how I remember these concerts. The real question is how could I ever forget an experience like this one.