When Jimi Hendrix burst on the music scene in the late '60s, the then "gods of the guitar," idolised by thousands, knew that they had been found out; jaws dropping, they rushed to worship at the new shrine and to usurp as much as they could for their own future betterment.
In 1972, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by Miles alumnus John McLaughlin, scorched across the USA and Europe and again a new level of musical excellence drove everything down in its path. "A bit like a monster truck going down hill without any brakes" is how their erstwhile road manager described their phenomenon. There wasn't a musician on the planet who heard them that wasn't inspired to new personal heights; Yes, Allman Brothers, Santana, Genesis have all since declared their efforts to absorb and emulate this the true monster band of the jazz rock movement.
But whereas Jimi Hendrix rarely discussed his avowed intent in public, to spread the message of the love of G-d to all people, John McLaughlin adopted the eastern spiritual persona of Mahavishnu (Great Creation) and publicly exhorted all souls to become "Birds of Fire, winging the infinite." This period in musical history represented a movement for the spiritual awakening of the world like no other and there has hardly been another since to match its far reaching effects.
So to 2004, and the Mahavishnu Project. What was then exceptional virtuosity is now an expected high water mark, with literally hundreds of guitarists, keyboardists and drummers able to shred across a complex landscape of rhythmic and harmonic texture. Seemingly every musical nook and cranny has been scrutinised across the globe to find new "fusions" compiling a New Age of World Music. How then, do five men from the west hope to rekindle that eternal Inner Mounting Flame, when in other parts of the world their countrymen and their allies fight unpopular wars in the name of Freedom and Liberty ?
Well, their promoter hadn't done them any favours; switching the venue to a different city, then to a different venue within the same city on a different day and with negligible advertised presence in local and national press, you could excuse the band for feeling downhearted at the small turn out.
Yet from the first simmering pedal-points of "Meeting of the Spirits," gradually building to an intense crescendo, you knew these guys were the Real Deal. With awesome power and control available they advanced through surely one of the most complex songbooks of all time with assuredness and growing confidence.
An eerily reverential rendition of "Sanctuary" with its spine tingling thematic cry followed, setting a contemplative mood in the place, itself once a church and no doubt home to some spiritual musics. Whilst remaining essentially true to the nature of the compositions, the band brought enough 21st Century sensibility to the performance to rise well above just pastiche; no mere tribute band this.
On "Lotus on Irish Streams," for example, once a pastoral acoustic moment in an otherwise thunderous electric set, McCann sets the tone with a thoroughly angular and disjointed fuzzed- out guitar solo, accompanied only by Hunt's thoughtful comping on synth. It is only towards the end of this sheet of noise that the pretty melodic figure of the original tune is recognisable.
The one problem in sound all night was the guitarist's propensity to dial in too much fuzz and distortion into his sound whilst soloing, the result being that much of his super fast runs blurred into a morass of buzzing. A real shame because on the more sober moments (and most of the night he looked like some demented ghoul let loose on an unsuspecting public) he showed himself to be more than capable and well in command of the material and his most important part in it.
Bendian's feature was the medley "Resolution/The Noonward Race." Originally the latter was a showcase duel between drums and guitar; he played an intelligent, muscular solo without completely spilling over into overdrive. Bendian's style is more modern than either Cobham's or Narada's ground-breaking traps work, owing, one suspects, more to the Dennis Chambers, and Steve Smiths of the world, no less immortal skin bashers than their honoured predecessors. Whether it was sheer professionalism (and the workouts and weights Bendian admitted to having to do in order to play this music every night) or the relatively small crowd present, the band never really broke real sweat and was always tightly in control of the music.
On the lighter side of things a very dreamy bass solo utilising repeated echo-generated patterns preceded "Dawn," one of McLaughlin's most beautiful ballads and Tarry was featured again with the unison violin of Rob Thomas during "Trilogy's" second section. Although he wore a perpetual frown all night, his support and underpinning of the band was every bit as steady and assured as Rick Laird's work in the original MO.
"Tomorrow's Story not the Same," the concluding part of this suite saw the band really kicking it at last as Bendian's use of the double bass drums brought reminders of Cobham's famous boogaloo which powered the MO along many a stellar highway.
The crowd responded in rapture like a bunch of teens at a "greatest hits" pop concert. Individual favourites were met with gasps and cries of expectant excitement and the band responded with thanks "to all you music-lovers" and an encore of "The Dance of Maya," albeit a tightly reined in reading without the long boogie-woogie middle section of which the original band was so enamoured.
Speaking to the band after the show there was a sense that all of them had been truly touched by this music at some point in their lives and that whilst not so overtly reverential, there was no doubt that all of them keenly felt the impetus of that mystical musical force that was the Mahavishnu Orchestra some thirty years previous.
Truly it was a Meeting of the Spirits.
Visit the Mahavishnu Project on the web at www.mahavishnuproject.com .