Shakti & Bela Fleck 9.14.23

Hill Auditorium
University of Michigan Ann Arbor, MI
Words & Photos by J. Picard In the early 1970s the music world shifted with the coming of a transformative collaboration between John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain. The result was a relatively short-lived but incredibly impactful project that grew from the chance encounter. Shakti, from its inception, was destined to change not only the sound of Indian music and jazz, but the possibilities of musical collaboration as a whole. Nearly fifty years later, the impact of this project that began in 1974 and concluded in 1978, is immeasurable and spans generations of listeners. 2023 marked the return of Shakti, the release of a new album (In This Moment) and an extensive tour that wrapped around the globe from Europe to the United States. From the announcement of the American tour dates, it was decided that we would be making the long journey from Denver, CO to Ann Arbor, MI for a show at Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan. It was clear that the day would be special, but there was no way to have foreseen the events that would unfold.
Our journey crossed 2,000 miles of expanse, from Denver, CO through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, down to the Detroit area. It was a beautiful Thursday in the state of Michigan and we took full advantage of it, arriving in the beautiful sunny city of Ann Arbor early. Following dinner in town, we arrived at Hill Auditorium as early as I’ve arrived at a show in a long time, to be present and watch the scene unfold. We secured our credentials from the box office which included an all access pass. This immediately caused me great anxiety, as I had to balance my desire to meet some of my favorite musicians and legends with the desire to be respectful and not cross any lines that would interfere with the band’s privacy and personal space. I knew this would be something that would tear at me for the remainder of the evening.
We wandered the DIAG and found a rally of some sort that featured the U of M Marching band! Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” filled the space, followed by the U of M fight song. It was a wondrous way to start our evening. Back over at Hill Auditorium, an eclectic group of folks gathered, including many folks wearing beautifully colorful sarees contrasted by people in rock t-shirts. We spotted our friend, The Senator, and conversed with he and my parents who had arrived just in time for the occasion. 7:00 PM rolled around and the doors to the ornate auditorium opened to the public. Inside, greetings were underway among family, friends and colleagues excitedly in anticipation of the evening’s performance. It was great to reconnect with my friend Zach, who is as big of a John McLaughlin and Shakti fan as any.
The lights dimmed, folks took their seats and a lone Bela Fleck wandered out on stage with a banjo in hand. What followed was the most beautiful barrage of notes and a warning from Bela that the rest of his set would unfold in the same fashion and that he hoped everyone would be able to get through it. The next forty five minutes to an hour was filled with esoteric banjo music that crossed genres, from classical to bluegrass and even included a short version of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” At one point Bela mentioned that he "spends half of the time tunning the banjo and the other half of the time playing out of tune," which got a big laugh from the crowd. This would likely be the only time that anyone in that audience would see someone with the skillset and brilliance of Bela Fleck open a show. As someone who has seen Bela for over twenty years including performing Indian music with Zakir Hussain, it was clear how meaningful this was for him and the result was nothing short of incredible.
A short intermission followed and as the lights dimmed, I found myself experiencing butterflies in anticipation of what was to come. Onto the stage walked John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, Selvaganesh Vinayakram and Ganesh Rajagopalan to a raucous applause. They began and I immediately found myself fixated on rhythms and output which were unlike anything I’ve ever heard performed live prior. Perfect musical execution and nonverbal communication collided with raw unfiltered notation that climbed and soared with abrupt starts and stops. John then welcomed Shankar Mahadevan to elevate the music even further with his golden voice.
The next hour and a half featured songs from In This Moment mixed with classic Shakti material and sounds. John’s finger flew across the neck of his PRS as if it were an extension of his soul. He rarely glanced down as he played some of the most technical notes I’d ever heard. To see him live was to witness greatness in real time. Ganesh’s violin playing was reminiscent of many of the greats and at the same time felt greater than those who have come before. The vibration of his bow on the strings, coupled with his technical prowess, drew respect and admiration among legends and listeners. At times he took the music to unbelievable heights only to bring it back and deliver the musical baton to the others with perfect timing and intuition.
One of the most captivating aspects of the evening’s performance was the combination of Salvaganesh & Zakir’s percussion exchanges and conversations. The depth of their rhythm, the extent of their counting and the sheer range of sounds emanating from their respective instruments was mesmerizing. The levity of their back and forths and the teasing of recognizable riffs during their final massive duet created an accessible feel, only to slide back to pure, deep sections of tabla, kanjira, mridangam and ghatam. Again, Shakar’s angelic voice and phrasings weaved in and out of complex rhythms. The group counted time as if it were a river, cascading over waterfalls and roaring ahead. The five friends laughed as they joyfully chased the count. The evening came to its eventual close, with Shakti meeting collectively at the front of the stage to show their gratitude for those in attendance. The crowd cheered and cheered before the band exited the stage and folks poured out into the warm southern Michigan night. And there I stood at the crossroads; I wanted to head to the car and ride home without the pressure of facing my heroes. I reached into my pocket and felt my pass. My wife turned to me and said, “you have to go back there.” I exhaled, took her by the hand and made my way around the back of Hill Auditorium.
At the backstage entrance there was a group of folks with bracelets on, waiting to get in. We stood patiently with no expectation. The gentleman working security at the back door asked where our bracelets were and I subtly flashed the all access pass. He welcomed us into the backstage area where we found Shankar, Ganesh and Salvaganesh greeting fans and taking photos playfully. The vibe was light and the large group of people that gathered backstage were excited. Bela Fleck wandered down the steps stopping next to us and I got a chance to tell him how much we enjoyed his set and asked if it would be ok to take a picture. He obliged and communicated how excited he was to be in the presence of his heroes. We wandered up a level where the smells of incredible Indian cuisine permeated the air. In craft services we found Zakir Hussain, who welcomed us and playfully made jokes about my request for a photo. There was a moment where I couldn’t believe I was getting ripped on by Zakir and had nothing to say but laugh. We snapped a shot and he grabbed my hand warmly and thanked us to which I lowered my head with deep gratitude. Back downstairs the crowd grew and with no sign of John, we decided to head out. As we were walking away, I got a weird feeling pulling me back and as we turned around, into the room walked John who was mobbed by adoring friends and fans. We waited patiently, getting pushed further away from meeting one of my musical heroes. He turned towards us and I asked if we could get a quick photo. He continued to get mobbed and then to my surprise slowly made his way over to us to make sure we got a shot. Just as Zakir did, he grabbed my hand affectionately, looked me in the eyes and thanked me for coming. It took everything I had in me not to cry.
The drive from Ann Arbor back to the Detroit area where we would stay with my folks was like a dream. I floated along the dashed lines of the highways, hearing tabla in my head and continuously articulating my absolute disbelief. I was in shock by the entirety of the experience and then I mumbled “that was the single greatest musical experience of my life.” We planned a 3,500 mile trip across the country culminating with that very special evening in Ann Arbor. For those in attendance that night, or anywhere along the way that witnessed the omnipotent Shakti, their lives are better for it. Thank you John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain for the incredible opportunity to share in this moment…


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