By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — One of the most revered jazz guitarists on the planet revisits rarely performed material from his ’70s heyday when British six-string wizard John McLaughlin and his band 4th Dimension share the stage with famed jamband axman Jimmy Herring at the Warfield Friday, playing songs McLaughlin made famous with Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Born to a musical family, McLaughlin would play with a number of early London R&B and blues groups including Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames and the Graham Bond Organisation (also the proving ground for future Cream members Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker). He first rose to fame as a contributor to the seminal electric jazz albums of Miles Davis. Starting with the trumpet player’s formative fusion efforts In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew (which included a song named after the guitarist) and continuing through such ’70s landmarks as On the Corner and A Tribute to Jack Johnson, McLaughlin would become one of Davis’ most important supporting players and disciples.
While he would not become a regular member of Davis’ electric group despite his frequent studio and live appearances (the guitarist was already playing in drummer Tony Williams’ band Lifetime when the trumpeter extended an invitation), McLaughlin would found one of the leading lights of the burgeoning fusion movement with his group Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Filled out by powerhouse drummer Billy Cobham (who also played on the Jack Johnson album), keyboard phenom Jan Hammer, the Flock violinist Jerry Goodman and bass player Rick Laird, the quintet mixed blazing guitar pyrotechnics and fiery jazz interplay with eastern musical influences (“Mahavishnu” was a name he had been given by his spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy) during its brief initial burst of creativity that produced three influential albums before the band split up.
McLaughlin would revive the group with a variety of line-ups through the decade while also embarking on collaborations with such notables as Carlos Santana (a fellow Sri Chinmoy devotee), his acoustic guitar meets Indian classical group Shakti with violinist L. Shankar and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and his legendary unplugged guitar trios with fellow virtuosos Paco De Lucia, Larry Coryell and Al DiMeola. Though he has focused on playing acoustic guitar in a variety of settings well into the 1990s, more recently McLaughlin has returned to electric jazz with his explosive group 4th Dimension featuring keyboard player/drummer Gary Husband, Cameroonian bassist Etienne M’Bappé and Indian drummer Ranjit Barot.
For their current Meeting of the Spirits Tour that will reportedly serve as the 75-year-old McLaughlin’s farewell U.S jaunt, the guitar hero will team with longtime jamband icon Herring. A North Carolina native who was playing Al Di Meola and Dixie Dregs covers as a precocious teen, Herring studied at both the Berkelee School of Music and LA’s Guitar Institute of Technology before launching his professional career.
Getting his start in the late ’80s as the lead guitarist for Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit (led by the namesake of the cult Atlanta avant-rock outfit the Hampton Grease Band), the agile improviser Herring would ultimately spend time playing with several legendary groups. He toured with the Allman Brothers, led the all-star jazz-fusion Grateful Dead quartet Jazz Is Dead with drummer Cobham before an extended period in both Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s band and eventually as a member of the post-Jerry Garcia Dead line-up referred to as the Other Ones and simply the Dead.
While he has been a member of noted southern jamband Widespread Panic since 2006, Herring has also remained busy with solo projects and other groups. On the current tour, he brings his group the Invisible Whip that features longtime Aquarium Rescue/Leftover Salmon drummer Jeff Sipe, keyboard player Matt Slocum, violinist/keyboardist Jason Crosby and bassist Kevin Scott.
For this Warfield show Friday that stands as the second to last date of the tour, after an opening set by Herring and Invisible Whip and a second set by McLaughlin and his group, the two ensembles will crowd onto the stage for a performance of Mahavishnu Orchestra classics that have been earning rave reviews across the country.
Meeting of the Spirits Tour With John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring
Friday, Dec. 8, 8 p.m. $49.50-$100 (sold out)