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Shakti At Hammersmith Eventim Apollo

Shakti At Hammersmith Eventim Apollo

Courtesy Tatiana Gorilovsky/Serious

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Shakti
Hammersmith Eventim Apollo
Hammersmith, London
June 27, 2023

All things must come to pass. Still, it came as a shock to learn that Shakti's two concerts in London would be their last in the UK. Earlier dates in India, a summer tour of Europe and North American dates through August and September would amount not just to a comeback, but also a long goodbye.

After 50 years, John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain, who had spoken so enthusiastically about this reunion, have seemingly called time on the legendary group.

It was a poignant occasion, for sure. Indians/Southern Asians in their finest attire were out in numbers. Fans took selfies against the backdrop of the Hammersmith Apollo, with the name of Shakti writ large. Both outside and inside the venue, a buzz attested to the excitement generated by the return—in its final incarnation—of this pioneering group.

It had been 47 years since Shakti last played this storied London venue—the Hammersmith Odeon as it was then. In July 1976, for the sum of £3.50, punters got to see Shakti supported by Weather Report, and, as if that were not enough, the Billy Cobham / George Duke band to boot.

Present in the audience that evening was 16-year-old Gary Husband. In a fable-like twist of fate, Husband found himself opening for Shakti at these London gigs, in a duo with French-Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen Le.

Theirs was a fairly thankless task, as the audience was impatient to see Shakti take to the stage. A twenty-minute set saw Husband toggle between drums and keyboard as Le conjured effects-laden ambient soundscapes. The absence of a probing bass, however, was felt. Only in the home stretch, on "One To One," did Husband (on drums) and Le cut loose with more biting interplay that hinted at greater possibilities.

It is early days for this duo. Kinder, headlining gigs will doubtless afford greater time and space for these two exceptional musicians to develop a more robust narrative.

At the anointed time, four fifths of Shakti entered the stage to a standing ovation. McLaughlin, Hussain, violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan and mridangam/ghatam player Selvaganesh Vinayakram assumed their familiar cross-legged positions. The vocal powerhouse that is Shankar Mahadevan waited in the wings.

Once settled, a whip-crack tabla trill launched "5 In The Morning, 6 in the Afternoon." Fireworks from McLaughlin and Rajagopalan were shadowed closely by Hussain, and Vinayakram on kanjira (South Indian frame drum). In between, unison lines scurried towards soaring crescendos that lifted the audience as one.

McLaughlin's solo rendition of "Zakir," which first appeared on Hussain's essential Making Music (ECM, 1987) bled seamlessly into "Anna"—a brief meditation that served as a palette cleanser before the entrance, to huge cheers, of Mahadevan. His caressing vocals over a McLaughlin arpeggio introduced "Giriaj Sudah," an old Shakti staple reworked on This Moment (Abstract Logix, 2023), Shakti's first studio album in 46 years.

The tenderness of Mahadevan's delivery preceded joyous collective release. Violin mirrored Mahadevan's melodious flight, the singer's hand gestures seeming to cradle and release each syllable of his phrasing, as though freeing a stream of silvery songbirds. With Rajagopalan laying out, Mahadevan displayed his improvisational chops, driven on by Hussain and Vinayakram with mounting urgency, and encouraged by the Hammersmith audience.

The juxtaposition of tender lyricism and exhilarating virtuosity has long been a Shakti hallmark. This was heard to wonderful effect in the segue between the Mahadevan vehicle "Sahki," an achingly beautiful bhajan, [see Is That So?] and the call-and-response fire ignited by McLaughlin and Rajagopalan—and fanned by the percussionists—on the devastating ensemble piece "Luki."

Given the passage of time, Hussain could have been forgiven for forgetting the title of Shakti's previous studio album, [Natural Elements (CBS Records, 1977)], but he took the audience laughter on the chin when unable to recall the title of Shakti's 2023 offering—an intro to Selvaganesh's joyful "Mohanam." This number ushered in the first fesity konnokol dialogue of the set. Rattling percussion, punctuated by Hussain's cymbal splashes, underpinned a trademark McLaughlin solo of lightning articulation—tinged with the blues—that belied his 81 years. Rajagopalan, in turn, kept the collective pulses racing with a dashing riposte before the quintet reunited on the head.

Gone were the 30-minute or hour-long excursions of earlier versions of the group. This was a leaner Shakti, though no less committed. Older compositions like "Lotus Feet" blended seamlessly with the shorter-form compositions from This Moment. Outstanding solos were plentiful, but Shakti was at its most irresistible when the musical lines passed back and forth, as on "Bending The Rules," in collective charge.

McLaughlin tipped his habitual wink to Mahavishnu Orchestra with the motif to "You Know, You Know" bleeding into "Finding The Way. " This stunning percussive fest featured solo turns from Vinayakram on kanjira, followed by Hussain, the duo then tearing it up in an electrifying exchange. Ribbons and bows were applied by McLaughlin, Rajagopalan and Mahadevan in a searing run of adrenaline-fueled unison lines that lifted the spirit. Breathless, brilliant and beautiful.

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