It’s been a staggering 43 years since the silver haired Doncaster boy-done-good played at Ronnie Scott’s, a fact that made even the steely eyed John McLaughlin pause for a moment, seemingly choked with emotion. For indeed it was something of a homecoming, a return to his humble beginnings, before he’d levitated off into the stratosphere of guitar-god-dom and a return to this most intimate and hallowed of stages. Thus if the packed audience had expected to blown away by a whirlwind of guitar fireworks on the opening odd-metered blues rock of ‘Raju’ it was perhaps reassuring that the odd slip of the finger and wobbly note was evidence of McLaughlin’s humanity, even he finding the intensity of the Ronnie Scott’s stage an imposing prospect for the opening few minutes. This was precisely the reason tonight’s gig had an extra frisson of excitement, to see one of the guitar world’s biggest beasts away from his natural habitat of roaming the savannah of the large concert hall stages, and in a far more personalised and up close environment.
Joined by regular sidekicks of Cameroonian bassist Etienne Mbappe and fellow Yorkshireman Gary Husband on keys and drums, the latest recruit to McLaughlin’s transcendental jam band is Indian drummer (and film composer) Ranjit Barot. All strong players with distinctive personal sounds this is a band with a powerful rhythmic base perfect for shifting gears on a set that cast light against shade throughout, blustering guitar-heavy fusion followed by melancholic ballad to create an emotive ebb and flow. Thus ‘Raju’ gave way to ‘The Unknown Dissident’, that then sparked off the riotous blues funk of ‘Little Miss Valley’ that concluded with some fierce Mahavishnu-style guitar and drum duelling, before things dipped again into ‘New Blues, Old Bruise’. It was on these brooding ballads that McLaughlin’s tremulous vibrato and curt Milesian phrasing reminded most of Jeff Beck’s slippery blues style, no doubt he’d have loved it should he have been listening in.
The set was in danger of slipping a little too far into emotional reveries and it was the explosive unison lead lines of ‘Hijacked’ that gave the energy levels a much needed boost, and also a chance for Mbappe to dazzle with some nimble fingered playing. McLaughlin meanwhile was on positively coruscating form throughout, once he’d settled into the set, his left hand digits moving like four furtive pairs of dancers feet, cross-stepping the fretboard at impossible speeds, only to the pause for an anguished blues squeal.
Though it was perhaps inevitable that Barot and Husband’s climactic double drum kit duel was the show’s killer blow, and with Husband playing to the home crowd (and through some pounding double bass pedal work) he just took the edge over new boy Barot, though both were exceptionally impressive. Yet the most remarkable thing here was McLaughlin, that six months shy of his 70th birthday he’s still playing with such fiery conviction, still searching for that 13th note and in aptly quoting Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ on his closing flurry of notes it would seem his goal is still beyond. The boy done good indeed.
– Mike Flynn