Jeff Beck stole the show from Eric Clapton at Madison Square Garden February 19th. Or he would have if Slowhand had deigned to compete with him for the spotlight.
But in a magnanimous gesture of generosity, similar to that which EC tender Steve Winwood two years ago around this time, the archetypal guitar hero preferred to let his successor in The Yardbirds take front and center the second of their two NYC shows together. And to his tremendous credit, Jeff Beck made the most of his opportunity.
Strutting out on stage, Beck radiated the cocky air of someone who knows he’s good and can’t wait to show his audience just how good. Ambitious as it was to play with a thirty piece orchestra, previewing material from the upcoming studio album Emotion and Commotion, Beck exhibited a brand new means by which to demonstrate how he loves to play a melody: he hit one note during "Corpus Christi Carol" that blended with the strings and brass and cut ever so sweetly throughout the cavernous air of this spacious venue.
Beck contrasted those gentle atmospherics with an earthier version of his trademark jazz-rock fusion (combining them in his dramatic rendition of "A Day in the Life"). A fan might’ve wanted more like "Led Boots" or "Big Block, " but dilettantes and devoted alike couldn’t help but be continually amazed by the unpredictable logic and fiery intensity of this man’s playing (not to mention his magnetic stage presence, prowling the huge Garden stage like he owned it, brandishing his guitar like a talisman but offering enough tongue-in-check poses to remind he doesn’t take himself that seriously).
In comparison, Eric Clapton, more often than not, sounded distant and disengaged. He turned "Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out" into a jaunty singalong, and he took an all too similarly casual turn through "Key to the Highway." Contrary to his collaboration with Winwood in 2008, Clapton rarely sounded either moved nor moving–except, thankfully, when he soloed, during which rare moments he exhibited the purity and passion that elevated him to the upper echelons of guitar players over four decades ago.
It was only fitting, then, that Slowhand deferred to Jeff Beck when the latter came on stage to join in on a clutch of blues and covers. "Shake Your Moneymaker" found the intensity level up more than a few notches from EC’s set (even given its unplugged beginning) and Cream’s "Outside Woman Blues" was archetypal British blues-rock at its most brutal. The lachrymose standard "Moon River " was memorable too, at least for the way Beck played the melody: as has become his wont with a ballad, he pierced the sentimental surface of the tune to reach its inherent melancholy.
No doubt it was Jeff’s idea to cover Sly Stone’s "I Want to Take You Higher" because the bone-crushing riff of the refrain sounds like he wrote it and he obviously relished grinding out the syncopated choruses.
As a perfectly fitting encore, "Crossroads" finally found both these guitar heroes feeling it, but ultimately demonstrated there are levels of guitar heroism and that, at least based on this show, Jeff Beck is right now in ascension to a level that may ultimately transcend Eric Clapton’s position in the pantheon of epochal axemen.