The entrance to the Deutsches Museum was jammed with shivering people closing umbrellas. They had just made their way through the evening rush hour and the cold rain to catch two of the world’s fastest guitarists in action on the same stage.
For one night, Münchners (as Munich residents are called) could pay homage to two living legends in contemporary music – John McLaughlin (of Mahavishnu and Shakti fame) and Paco de Lucia (the astounding flamenco guitarist featured in a 1983 film version of Carmen by Spanish director Carlos Saura) – an event not to be missed, even in this city of eternal concerts.
We were 5½ minutes late – and a lone figure was already seated on the stage of the Congress Hall, introvertedly exploring complex chord combinations. Our seats were so far back I just couldn’t make out who was playing, but it sounded loud and clear. “Is that Paco de Lucia?” I whispered. My companion had no idea what either performer looked like. After a few minutes I heard some familiar high-speed runs. “Ah! John McLaughlin! Nobody has an attack like that.”
My companion was listening with her eyes closed. We hadn’t expected the hall to be so packed, that’s why we had gone for the cheapest tickets (well, DM25 cheap, about $35). Apparently, for that kind of money, all you get is the audio – not the video, for which you should be prepared to fork out at least DM42 (about $59). There were some people sitting in the aisles, some leaning forward in their seats, and others who had trouble finding their seat rows.
The distinguished silver-haired figure on stage was warming up and beginning to sound more like the John McLaughlin I knew: reeling off harmonic arpeggios with an almost angry passion and a power reminiscent of his youthful jazzed-up head-rock days. I thought to myself: “This guy doesn’t seem to have mellowed at all. He’s still as impatient as ever.”
Right then he finished the piece and, without waiting for the applause to recede, began the gentlest, mellowest, most contemplative and sublimest guitar piece I’ve heard in my life. He didn’t even bother to introduce it or address the audience.
From the brilliant harmonics and the brightness of his notes, it was obvious that McLaughlin was using an acoustic-electric with metal strings, probably custom-made. The thought of him sitting alone on the bare stage, beside an empty leather-covered stool with only a couple of mikes for company – and playing to this capacity crowd (it might have been over 3,000 people, mostly below-40) gave me a spine-tingling sensation of vertigo: how could any performer stand such heights?
This was naked virtuosity – no frills, no chorus, no dancing girls. McLaughlin abruptly ended the piece, raised his guitar in acknowledgment of the thunderous appreciation, and launched immediately into something almost funky but undoubtedly impossible for anyone else to perform.
Now and again, it sounded like pure show-off stuff. But if you were a virtuoso – and one of the most awesome guitar greats alive – you’d have no choice but to turn a few tricks occasionally.
Otherwise, people might say you were losing your touch. This particular audience, it appeared, came to see Paco de Lucia whom they knew from the Carmen movie. Only the older ones had heard McLaughlin and knew something of his stature in the musical universe.
Again the abrupt finish, the loud applause, the raised guitar salute. Then the conservatively-dressed silver-haired man was gone, without a word. A few minutes later, from the opposite wing of the stage, a darker, shorter man with straight dark hair and a Spanish guitar strode on.
No patter, no preamble – he just sat down and caressed his instrument, coaxing a fiery yet mellifluous flow of fluid, flamenco ecstasy out of it, without visible effort.
This was Paco de Lucia, the world’s latest and greatest divine incarnation of the Andalusian soul, as only the Spanish guitar could convey it.
A haughty man, proud of his absolute ability. One of those rare prodigies who simultaneously embody a tradition and yet manage to enrich it with an individual sensitivity and flair.
After McLaughlin’s metallic velocity and nerve-jangling verve, de Lucia’s gut-stringed gallantry and graceful restraint was immensely soothing. For a while I found myself wondering if that was the reason for McLaughlin’s having opened the show – that Paco de Lucia was the rising star of the guitar, and getting John McLaughlin to precede him in concert was his way of announcing his arrival at the celestial gates of superstardom.
The more melodious and more accessible material de Lucia was playing certainly grabbed the audience by their heartstrings.
Having only watched Saura’s Carmen on video, I hadn’t really registered Paco de Lucia who, apart from contributing some original music for the soundtrack, also starred in it as (what else?) a flamenco guitarist. This was indeed a wonderful way to get properly introduced to the man.
Never mind that he didn’t appear particularly approachable, sitting with his precious guitar with such an utterly aloof aura emanating from him. Enough that the music he was producing was far from aloof – it was exquisitely seductive.
After three solo pieces – intense, serene, and flamboyant – Paco de Lucia stood up, waved a hand in formal response to the ovation, and walked solemnly off the stage, in the same direction he entered. The house lights came on for the intermission.
Naturally we tried to get better vantage points in the center aisle when the second part of the show started – but a huge bouncer in black leather shooed everyone back to their seats. Undaunted, we crouched in the side aisle – and, after a little pleading with one of the younger ushers, were left in peace to witness a little guitar magic with Paco de Lucia and John McLaughlin.
Their first duet sounded familiar: ah, Chick Corea’s Spain – a great performance piece with a totally catchy but acutely difficult to play melodic refrain. Each guitar had its turn at playing lead but the good moments occurred every time they came back together with unforced precision. Somehow they managed to sound totally spontaneous – though it was clear that these two men had spent some hours with some wine and gossip and serious practice.
As the duet performance progressed it became obvious that McLaughlin was doing most of the solo acrobatics with his steel-stringed. He seemed to have at his command a far wider range of expression and wit than de Lucia who favored 32nd note scale runs whenever it was his turn to turn a variation or two.
McLaughlin, on the other hand, had resources from unbelievably diverse guitar backgrounds, running the gamut from jazz-rock to raga to pure, contemplative guitar meanderings towards the musician’s personal nirvana.
After a while McLaughlin appeared to be getting into a mischievous mood. He began playing catch-me-if-you-can with de Lucia, altering the rhythm and tempo without warning – and looking up with an impish grin at the poker-faced Spaniard. It wasn’t that much fun for the Scotsman – these Latin types don’t have the same sense of humor. At least, not in musical terms.
By now we had edged very much nearer the stage and were able to see the men’s expressions as they played. It made a world of difference, of course, and it seemed ridiculous that such an intimate recital should ever be staged in a venue as imposing as the Deutsches Museum’s Congress Hall, without the benefit of giant video screens. There are things to be learnt from rock concerts.
Anyway, with the benefit of close proximity, I learnt that John McLaughlin is an extremely handsome man – and that Paco de Lucia is balding at the top.
Before anyone knew it, the performance was over. The guitar legends stood up in unison, bowed and walked away. We knew there would be an encore, to be sure. But we didn’t expect something like six!
The crowd simply refused to let the exhausted virtuosos off, clapping and chanting and forcing them back on stage just by staying rooted to their seats. Nay, most people had stood up and were pushing their way towards the footlights. My companion and had wisely secured excellent positions right against the stage apron, within spitting distance of the performers.
Every time I thought it was going to be the absolute final piece, the exuberant crowd won out… and we were treated to more and more amazing improvisations than had gone into the formal part of the show.
By the time we eventually left the Congress Hall, I was ready to vote John McLaughlin for President of Anything and Anyplace – and ask Paco de Lucia for his autograph.