A memorable farewell from jazz fusion giant John McLaughlin
British guitar virtuoso John McLaughlin has played Boston many times over his lengthy career: with the improvisation-driven Tony Williams Lifetime, with the fiery Mahavishnu Orchestra, with the Indian-influenced Shakti. His visit to the Wilbur Theatre on Wednesday, with his crack band the 4th Dimension, was part of what’s being billed as his American Farewell Tour. But McLaughlin, 75, didn’t appear ready for retirement.
After a searing, hourlong instrumental set from another ace guitarist, Jimmy Herring, with his recently formed band the Invisible Whip, McLaughlin and band (Gary Husband on keyboards and drums, Étienne Mbappé on bass, Ranjit Barot on drums) hit the stage with what looked, sounded, and felt like a supply of boundless energy.
McLaughlin, grimacing and smiling and obviously feeling every note, offered up the melodic and complicated “Miles Beyond” from his 1973 album “Birds of Fire,” then dipped into more recent material, including two tunes from 2015’s Black Light”: the laid back “El Hombre Que Sabia” and the raucous and playful “Here Come the Jiis,” featuring a busy bass solo from the black-gloved Mbappé, and a riotous drum battle between Barot and Husband, who sat in at a second kit. A peaceful highlight of the evening was the brief guitar/piano duet of “Senor C.S.” from the 2006 album “Industrial Zen.”
But the sold-out crowd showed its appreciation at its strongest when Herring and his band returned to the stage to accompany McLaughlin and his band on a journey through the Mahavishnu Orchestra days. “Meeting of the Spirits,” the opening track from the 1971 classic “The Inner Mounting Flame,” had McLaughlin putting down his Paul Reed Smith six-string, then strapping on and plugging in his monstrous PRS twin-neck guitar (yes, he still walks around the stage with wires attached to his amps). Fans knew what to expect: blinding speed on the strings and often eccentric time changes. What they got was the thrilling realization that McLaughlin, one of the most lauded fusion guitarists for decades, has gotten better at his craft. He’s faster, more inventive, more soulful. Yet he easily changed the electrified mood of the place to one of lilting beauty, with some nice guitar counterpoint between him and Herring, on “A Lotus on Irish Streams,” and he absolutely rocked out, now doing unison solos with Herring, on “Eternity’s Breath,” from 1975’s “Visions of the Emerald Beyond.”
The crowd’s unhinged response to “The Dance of Maya,” with its slow start that builds in intensity till bursting into a rocking shuffle, signaled it was the favorite song of the night. As did the voice of one fan who yelled out, “Don’t retire, John! We love you!”
and the 4th Dimension
With Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip
At the Wilbur Theatre, Wednesday