John McLaughlin - six- and twelve-string guitar; Carlos Santana - guitar; Larry Young - organ; Doug Rauch - bass; Armando Peraza - congas; Billy Cobham - drums
In 1973, guitarists John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana were both venturing down a similar path. Both had become disciples of the spiritual teacher, Sri Chimnoy and they were both actively pursuing a spiritual path within their music. Both musicians also held the music of John Coltrane in the highest regard and these common interests led them to collaborate on an album. That recording, Love Devotion Surrender was greeted with mixed reactions at the time, but there was no denying that it contained some of the most blistering guitar playing ever committed to tape. For Santana, the album was a serious departure from the Latin-flavored rock that his fans had embraced, but was clearly a signpost to where he was heading. McLaughlin was already one of the most respected jazz guitarists on the planet and had been directly involved in some of the most influential music of the past few years, having played with Miles Davis during his transition into electric music and with his own group, Mahavishnu Orchestra. The album was not for the faint of heart or the casual listener. The depth of concentration between the musicians was difficult to fathom at first, but repeated listening revealed that these musicians had indeed tapped into something very special. In retrospect, the jazz-rock fusion recorded for this album holds up rather well and the brief tour that occurred in support of the album contained some the most inspired performances of either guitarist's career.
Two of the most memorable concerts of that tour occurred at the intimate Berkeley Community Theater. The early show begins with the plaintive and delicate "Meditation," setting a tone of quiet contemplation. This transitions into the first serious exploration, "The Life Divine." This complex composition is not unlike McLaughlin's work with Mahavishnu Orchestra, containing a heavy emphasis on rhythm with a freeform jazz quality running throughout. It vacillates between moodiness and an infectious funkiness. Although the guitar soloing is often relentless, it is never without expressiveness. The guitarists have left their egos behind here and the concentration level is staggering.
After almost 19 minutes of blazing musicianship, they transition into their interpretation of John Coltrane's masterpiece, "A Love Supreme." Any attempt at performing this piece, which stands as one of Coltrane's ultimate compositions, was bound to be met with plenty of skepticism and controversy. However, these musicians create a beautiful and reverent exploration that manages to capture the energy of Coltrane's original work. Initial listening can be disorienting, as the guitar and electronic instrumentation is radically different from the original, but the musicians respect for the religious and spiritual qualities, as well as their passion for the composition itself are obvious. The group's improvisations are fantastic explorations, and although individual musicians can easily be singled out for their incredible technique and precision, there is a beautiful balance here, with everyone contributing to this passionate performance. The free flowing improvisation never abandons the lyrical beauty of the composition.
"Flame Sky" continues the set with another lengthy exploration. This again features an unbelievable energy level, with plenty of searing guitar solos. Larry Young's organ playing is relentlessly creative and distinctive on this piece and Cobham's drumming is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Like the guitarists, in this particular context, all the musicians are performing with a dexterity that seems superhuman.
The set concludes with "Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord," originally the longest song on the album. Based on a recording by Pharoah Sanders, this is one of the most interesting compositions in this group's repertoire. It is also probably the most accessible to Santana fans, as it incorporates rock, blues and Latin influences more overtly than the group's other material. While at times the music is more melodic and cerebral than what preceded it, there is still plenty of technical virtuosity making this one of the most captivating performances of the concert. Santana has never sounded more passionate or confident than he does here and the interplay between he and McLaughlin is nothing short of astounding. These musicians are on fire, playing with an intensity and passion that has rarely been achieved in front of an audience. The adjective "intense" has been applied to many performances throughout history, but never was it more applicable than it is here.