John McLaughlin and Jimmy Herring Talk New Album, 'Live in San Francisco'

Meeting of the spirits: Jimmy Herring [left] and John McLaughlin in action in 2017

Meeting of the spirits: Jimmy Herring [left] and John McLaughlin in action in 2017 (Image credit: Kim Allegrezza)

In 2017, John McLaughlin, 76, the founder of the visionary Mahavishnu Orchestra, announced that he’d tour North America one final time. He was joined on the 25-date Meeting of the Spirits tour by guitarist Jimmy Herring and his band, the Invisible Whip. Herring opened, then McLaughlin played, and then both bands — nine musicians in all — took the stage for a set that leaned heavily on Mahavishnu’s classic material from their Birds of Fire, Inner Mounting Flame and Visions of Emerald Beyond albums. One of these sets, which had grown men weeping, is captured on the new album Live in San Francisco (Abstract Logix).

“John McLaughlin is just larger than life, and hearing Mahavishnu Orchestra was life changing for me,” Herring says. “I hadn’t realized anyone could play like that. It was like athleticism on a musical instrument, but it’s a lot more than that. As I began to understand the spiritual and compositional depths, I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever heard in my life.”

So, Herring’s reason for wanting to tour with one of his heroes is clear enough, but why did McLaughlin want his protégé along for his final North American ride? “Jimmy is out of sight,” McLaughlin says on the phone from his home in Monaco. “He’s incredible. I really wanted to make the tour big and important and there’s nothing like two guitars.

“It was just wonderful, a real joy. That’s a very important aspect of life that we don’t see enough. People equate joy with young kids, who are naturally joyful. We all are, but we lose it in our messed-up society, which is such a shame. We had pure joy on this tour and you don’t always get that, even playing with great musicians. To achieve it, you need a kind of deep complicity. There was a spirit in this band that was the closest thing to the original Mahavishnu I have experienced. That gets inside the music and comes through the notes. It is human emotion and without that, even the greatest technical playing is just empty sound.”

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Alan Paul

Alan Paul is the author of three books, Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, One Way Way Out: The Inside Story of the Allman Brothers Band – which were both New  York Times bestsellers – and Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, a memoir about raising a family in Beijing and forming a Chinese blues band that toured the nation. He’s been associated with Guitar World for 30 years, serving as Managing Editor from 1991-96. He plays in two bands: Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, with Guitar World’s Andy Aledort.