Breaks between the numbers in the set are as intense as the performance—the audience is entranced with the complexity of the music and the virtuosity of the musicians and keeps screaming for more. The peak of the evening is “The Dance of Maya.” It opens with a series of ten syncopated and sinister guitar notes that scale a musical ladder. Each measure jumps into the next as if a beat has dropped away someplace—then the ladder collapses and ascends again. The phrase is magnified by a wah-wah pedal. The notes sound as if they are being spoken aloud using a vocabulary that is totally new to me—yet somehow, I understand it. Something is coming to presence in our shared Winterland reality, penetrating our ears, and then dissipating into memory. Then I understand—it is illusion that is drawing us to the spirit of the depths. I remember what maya means.
At the third iteration of the phrase the violin cries like an invisible demon that has been hiding in the recesses of the hall—maybe under the balconies or in the far-off corners where the incense smoke lingers. The volume grows. The ladder phrase reaches its peak, and then with no warning the music transforms to—boogie-woogie! The dread evaporates. I still can’t count the beats—there’s not exactly four beats to a measure. One is missing—where does it go?
My inability to count the rhythm does not matter because the music alters—again the change is startling. Nothing stays the same in this composition. The guitar works out a droll phrase inside the boogie, the drums take off like a jetliner, and McLaughlin starts a solo that escapes the gravity of the deceptive boogie-woogie that anchors it. Cobham’s snare drum envelops the guitar tightly as if there is a percussion solo within the guitar solo. Another sudden change—the boogie-woogie phrase is enmeshed in the sinister ladder once more. A coda emerges, six notes of dark laughter, the last of which is held for countless beats as the guitar fires streams of notes like a machine gun discharging hard diamonds—the violin squeals like an angry cat—the piano unfolds a magnificent arch of tricky arpeggios—the tom-toms roll—until the music halts with a sudden shriek, accentuated by McLaughlin dragging his fingers across the steel windings of the guitar strings.
The roaring of the crowd swirls through the vast space of Winterland like waves pounding the shore in a storm. Everyone is on their feet. All these people have come to see ELP—who now seem irrelevant. There is a mystic element in this performance—the incense and the moment of silence make it a ceremony rather than a diversion. The music is a direct plunge into the ocean of divine presence like the transformational music of Pink Floyd—but those musical forms were familiar. The Mahavishnu Orchestra is unencumbered by vocals and lyrics. The music changes relentlessly, stops, restarts, and breaks off into unfamiliar territory with no warning. The pace is frenetic—and I am crammed full. My cerebral appetite has been satiated.
During the intermission between the two bands I feel an abrupt desire to return to my dorm room and sleep off the evening. There’s no point in telling my companions that I want to leave—that I’m finished and have heard enough. Nothing can top the Mahavishnu set. I do not want to create a fuss. Despite my sudden lack of craving for more music, my companions are still anxious to see Emerson, Lake & Palmer.