Losing Yourself in the Music: A Chat with John McLaughlin on His Final Tour

John McLaughlin at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2011 / Photo: AP


John McLaughlin isn’t one for nostalgia. The pioneering guitarist and founder of the Mahavishnu Orchestra rarely looks back over his 50 years touring the world and sharing the stage with legends such as Miles Davis. He understands that the distance behind runs longer than the stretches of road that lay ahead.

Together with guitarist and friend Jimmy Herring of Widespread Panic, McLaughlin travels full circle with the Meeting of the Spirits tour, a collection of stateside dates that will serve as a farewell tour as well as a thank you note to his fans and the country that inspired five decades of virtuosity. The tour stops in Jacksonville with a Nov 24 show at The Florida Theatre.

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John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring
John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring

“There might be isolated concerts, but this is it for the touring,” says McLaughlin. “I’ve been preparing for this for a long time. It’s really important to me.”

McLaughlin and Herring will each play an individual set with their respective bands the 4th Dimension and the Invisible Whip before coming together for an explosive closing jam session of McLaughlin’s catalog circa 1971-75.

“I first heard him playing a song from the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and I thought ‘Oh my God, why didn’t I play it like that?’” he says. “It was so good. We’ve been friends now for a long time. He’s such a great spirit, and he loves this music so much. It really brings this full circle, because it is my last tour, and I couldn’t think of a better way to say thank you to America and the American people. I know crazy things are going to happen when we take music from 45 years ago and bring it up to date. Jimmy’s wild and such a great musician.”

With their combined penchant for wildly adventurous and improvisational shows, McLaughlin acknowledges the jams could easily combust into an all-nighter. “I have to watch out. We could go into Union time, and it wouldn’t be the first time,” laughs McLaughlin as he recalls the first night he was ever shut down by promoters for violating union regulations. “It happened in Florida. The promoters pulled the plug on us.”

Born in Britain, McLaughlin spent 14 years in America in the late 60s where he received an immersive education in the blues culture. In 1971, McLaughlin established the Mahavishnu Orchestra which achieved great albeit unexpected success.

“That music is still kind of legendary now,” he says. “What an amazing impact American music had on me. I was a young teenager, so I listened to the Mississippi blues when I was about 12 and finally I heard Miles Davis when I was about 15. He was my hero and all the people who were in his band.”

“I don’t look back often, but when I do, I just thank God. What a great privilege to be a musician and play with the most amazing artists in the world.”

In September, McLaughlin released Live @ Ronni Scott’s, a live album recorded over two nights last March with the 4th Dimension at the legendary London venue where McLaughlin started his early career as a member of the house band. The live recording showcases McLaughlin’s virtuosity and his reverence for tone and texture. It’s a love letter.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he says. “It’s a real love and passion in the band. That’s what I ask all of musicians. How strongly to do you feel about what you’re doing? Because it’s got to be total conviction or get another job, really. This, there is a collectivity, and we’re all looking for a kind of freedom in the music. Freedom is not something you can order. It happens or it doesn’t. And it happens when the love is there because that’s the only thing that makes things work in the end. And that is what I call spirit. Without that, we’re just playing a lot of notes. The question is when we go on stage, what are we saying individually and collectively for that matter? We only have one thing to say, and it’s the story of our life, isn’t it? How do I feel right now at this moment being alive and being aware and playing music with the people we love? You tell your story and ultimately, it’s the story of the spirit.”


McLaughlin is a musicians’ musician, but he also understand what it means to be a fan. “When I go to a concert, I want whoever is playing to carry me away by their conviction and their passion in their love. I lose myself in their music. And that’s all I want,” he says. “I need some blood on the stage.”

Sharing his music with a collective group is opening a vein and bleeding out for the sake of the art. The fear of reaching a place where he would be a disappointment to his fans was all the motivation McLaughlin needed to “quit while I was ahead.”

“I don’t look back often, but when I do, I just thank God. What a great privilege to be a musician and play with the most amazing artists in the world. I’ve been on the road for almost 50 years. Holy smokes, that’s a long time. I have one very kind of nightmare scenario to be on tour and all of a sudden not be able to play because of whatever. We’re getting older. All kinds of things happen to you when you get older, and that’s the nightmare. It’s a betrayal of myself and a betrayal to the public. The people come and they pay their hard-earned money to come and see the show. I cannot put myself in a position that would allow that to happen. It’s the right time.”

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