Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Jeff Beck is one of the few guitarists in the history of Rock n Roll to even come close to Hendrix territory. Deliberately shunning public life sometimes for years at a stretch, Beck is not a publicity whore like many of his early Brit-Rock contemporaries. Perfectly content to spend most of his time living in obscurity and working on his collection of vintage automobiles, it seems like Jeff Beck will only occasionally surface to record an album and follow it up with a tour.
That was the man’s routine for many years, but lately he’s been a lot more active and thankfully this has made him more visible on the touring circuit.
Beck’s latest release, Emotion And Commotion, has stirred up a lot of both in his diehard fan base. Recent appearances have included a brief tour earlier this year with Eric Clapton, both men’s faces on the cover of Rolling Stone, a Grammy for his rendition of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life”, and a number of high profile appearances with Dublin chanteuse Imelda May in which the two paid tribute to Les Paul & Mary Ford.
Riding the wave of his recent resurgence, Beck’s just returned from playing some dates abroad and he is currently touring the states. On a recent stop in Cincinnati, Beck and his band blazed through a mostly instrumental performance that alternated mind-numbing rockers with glistening ballads. This career retrospective crash course at times seemed like it was maybe a little too heavy on the sweet ballads. But honestly the rockers were so intense that these softer tunes may have been placed strategically throughout the set just to allow the stunned audience to catch their breath.
JB and the band hit the ground running when they opened with the blistering one-two punch medley of “Eternity’s Breath” and “Stratus”. Next up was “Led Boots” from Jeff’s 1976 Wired LP. Even at this early stage in the program it was already clear that Beck remains one of the most nimble-fingered guitarists in Rock.
Throughout Beck’s performance I was struck by the notion that this wasn’t just another night in another Midwestern shed on another endless summer tour by any old run-of-the-mill Classic Rock artist. Just for the sheer fact that whenever Jeff Beck plugs a Stratocaster into a Marshall amp it is a special occasion. Sparks fly from his fingers and he makes ungodly sounds come out of that guitar that you are not going to hear anywhere else in the world at this moment in time or any other and the likes of which haven’t been heard since Jimi died.
Beck appears to have a light touch as his left hand flutters like a hummingbird on the fretboard. Playing without a pick, his right hand deftly plucks the strings while simultaneously maneuvering the whammy bar and the volume knob to elicit subtle effects and wild squawls. His technique is totally unique and his musicianship is light years beyond most players. Yet the man nonchalantly strolls about the stage with a sly grin on his face and makes it all look easy.
Beck’s current band features the amazing Rhonda Smith on bass. She’s played with Prince for many years so you know she’s got the funk. At the Cincy show, Smith spanked the bass ferociously and took the only vocals of the night on an impassioned re-invention of Muddy Waters’ “Rolling And Tumbling” and a rousing rave-up on the old Sly & The Family Stone song “I Wanna Take You Higher”. Rounding out Beck’s band is keyboard player Jason Rebello and the legendary Narada Michael Walden on drums. Walden has produced and played drums on hundreds of records including his work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and some of Beck’s early solo albums, so this was a reunion of sorts for these two old friends. It was apparent from very early in the set that this incredibly gifted band didn’t need several minutes of improv to work up a jam. The jams just exploded forth from them on Beck’s cue and it was amazing to behold.
This show really had no low points, but some of the more obvious highlights included Beck’s blazing renditions of “Hammerhead” from his latest record and “Big Block”. The latter featured Beck fiercely plucking a wicked riff on a low E-string that had been tuned four steps down to a growling C-note, creating an evil, dirty tone. On the softer side, Beck played some of the most beautiful guitar ballads I have ever heard. His take on “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” was pure and gentle genius. I was a little put off at first by the pre-recorded vocal track on Beck’s encore of the Les Paul & Mary Ford classic “How High The Moon”. But I was impressed by Beck’s decision to encore with a song that featured a style of guitar playing totally unlike anything he had played all night and I was won over by his loving tribute to one of his guitar heroes. Taking into consideration how amazing Jeff Beck is, I am now going back and listening to any and all of the guitarists that he considers his greatest influences. These would include Les Paul and also Cliff Gallup who played lead guitar on all of Gene Vincent’s early records. Think about it: there’s gotta be something there!
Wrapping up the show with one last spacey ballad, Beck bid us farewell with a sparkling rendition of “Nessun Dorma”, an aria from Puccini’s Turandot. For all of Beck’s wild guitar histrionics that sound at times like a herd of charging rhinos while he shrugs and makes it appear effortless, the man can also play with a soft, lyrical quality that is light as a feather, like bird song on the wind. He barely says ten words into the microphone all night long, but his guitar has the ability to spark the full spectrum of emotion.
It should also be noted that this writer heard absolutely no mid-song chatter from the crowd throughout the show. This sort of hushed reverence is unheard-of at any kind of concert these days. Like Beck’s stellar performance, this crowd’s respectful silence spoke volumes.