Note: The following was written by Bill Mercurio. He’s been a Jeff Beck uber-fan for longer than you’ve been eating hamburgers (unless you’ve been a lifelong vegan, in which case, just forget I said that). He attended the Jeff Beck/Buddy Guy tour at the fabulous Filene Center precisely one week ago today. He even took the blurry picture you see alongside these words. If you’d like to tell him how much you love him – or how much you think Jeff Beck sucks – feel free to shoot him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even at the whopping cost of $1,500, I have never regretted my trip to England to see Jeff Beck perform a special show in London. Despite the depths of the great recession – even staring down a stack of unpaid bills – never did I wish I had that money back. That three-plus hour show included walk-on performances by Paul Rodgers, John McLaughlin and Terry Bozzio, as well as a set by the White Stripes. So yeah, definitely worth the dosh.
Experiences should always trump stuff, right?
Which brings me to last week’s Jeff Beck gig at Wolf Trap. Surely I was set up to be disappointed, right? Not at all. As a matter of fact, July 27 ranks as one of my favorite Jeff Beck shows, and, given my multi-decade history with the best Yardbird, that says a lot.
For the uninitiated, Jeff Beck is one of the truly transcendent electric guitarists of all-time, and his countless contributions to guitar-based rock, pop, jazz, fusion and rockabilly cannot be overstated. Dude’s a two-time Hall-of-Famer for a reason and last week’s show proved why, confirming that my man crush on a 72-year wifebeater-baring axman is wholly-justified. For 75 flawless minutes, the deeply talented six-piece band delivered a just-about-perfect rock gig. Beck’s playing is as enigmatic as ever – expressive, dynamic, and teeming with vibratoed chord fragments and intervals, glissandos, sweep picking, very quick legato runs and his patented machine gun triplets. Kid loves him some pedal tones, too – it’s just another day at the office in terms of the guy’s fretwork. But this tour in particular will find purchase among casual Beck fans, those who don’t care about his unusual picking technique and his sublime use of the trem bar. Here’s why: All 17 tunes were highly-engaging in their own right, offering a diversity of genre, meter and era. There’s something for everyone; run don’t walk.
The players – which included two singers, Rosie Bones and Jimmie Hall – moved effortlessly from funk to a boogie woogie instrumental (penned by the late and criminally-underrated Johnnie Mack) to standards like “Morning Dew,” “A Change is Gonna Come,” and “Superstition.” Miss Bones, a youthful, Cockney-inflected sprite, was the energetic center of the performance, stalking the crowd with a megaphone (a reference to the new album’s cover art), dancing by herself and falling to her knees. I loved the energy, and take it from me, most Beck shows could use a little more Jazzercise – even hardcore fans understand that an ear may grow weary of 15 guitar instrumentals. (Although I wish he had played “Nadia.” That gorgeous, evocative melody, rendered as only Beck can, is a compelling live piece; take out “Big Block”).
Of the 17 tunes, only 10.5 were penned by Beck – yeah, I give him half of “Superstition” – which reveals his sincere appreciation of other people’s musical ideas as well as his confidence in presenting material from the Beatles to Hambone Willie with both fidelity and passion. Again, there’s something for everyone.
And when I say everyone, I mean everyone in the crowd bought what Mr. Hall was selling on “Morning Dew.” By the time the gritty Wet Willie front man leaned into the second verse, it. Gave. Me. Goosebumps. As the tune continued to build, Beck’s “brown” tone filled the arena and drummer John Joseph found the right mix of rolls and double bass licks without stepping on the singer’s toes. I felt privileged to experience it, so much so that I muttered to a friend the following: “Rod who?”
Unfortunately, when we saw Mr. Hall later in the night, on “Rollin’ and Tumblin,’” he didn’t quite seem able to connect with it. Perhaps it was the tempo or the fact that Hall had lost his mojo by being sidelined for 30-plus minutes, but … meh, it seemed flat. Imogene Heap – who crushed it on You Had It Coming – knew how to cut through and over the countless double-stops and claim her own space. Regardless, Beck furiously stormed all over the neck on this tune, no fret was spared, and he tossed in a few lengthy glissandos to boot.
Another special moment came quite unexpectedly. “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” unarguably one of the most poignant guitar instrumentals of all time, and a tune I learned and taught note for note many years, has always been a tremendous live show letdown, and, really, the perfect time for me to freshen my drink. That’s because in every performance – from “Secret Policeman” to “Ronnie Scott’s” – the tempo has been sacrificed, and far worse, the guitarist overplays on what is necessarily a spare and haunting farewell; it just never worked for me live (the “Ronnie Scott’s” version wanders unnecessarily). In the 1975 studio version, Beck proves Miles Davis’ declaration that “music is the space between the notes … it’s the notes you don’t play.” Well, last week, he didn’t play a lot of notes, as this version breathed, tension was built and resolved, and no busy hands were to be found. It was an epic live moment for this rare piece, and a fanboy’s moment to cherish.
Ms. Bones sang on tunes from Loud Hailer, which included “O.I.L.,” “Scared for the Children,” “Right Now,” and the Tom Morello-approved “The Ballad of the Jersey Wives.” All were rendered brilliantly, although the latter was especially compelling as Bones channeled her inner Emily Gaines as the vamp continued on and on. I didn’t find the rather long solo on “Children” to be cohesive or engaging; it seemed like it needed a stronger melody or hook.
Also of note: Consistent with all Beck shows, there was very little spectacle; it was a stripped down affair and the one visual element was the Loud Hailer album cover image projected onto the back of the stage.
The opening act, blues legend Buddy Guy, started on time – bonus on a school night! – and brought his customary flamboyance, bombast and swagger to his 50-minute set. Mostly working the upper register of his Fender all night, his stinging solos were as edgy, aggressive and effective as always, and his 80-year-old voice is holding up beyond natural limits. His set benefited from his keenly dynamic drummer who showed consistent respect for the main instruments, maintained a crisp just behind-the-beat pocket all night, and employed just the right amount of syncopation (the sound-man didn’t do him too many favors as the crash and splash cymbals were difficult to discern and the snare drum seemed damped). As is his custom, Mr. Guy went wireless and patrolled the sweaty masses for several minutes, soling out of control. Overwrought with feedback, this attendee could have done with less of this form of showmanship – frankly, musically, it was a hot cacophonous mess at times but … eh … it’s show biz, and most of the crowd eats it up.
But back to Beck. As has been his practice for the last few years, Geoffrey Arnold closed with his solo rendition of “A Day in the Life.” Here’s a tip: Don’t head for the doors early. It’s musical manna, and the rare example of what comes from a virtuoso re-imagining one of the pop world’s best-known melodies. If nothing else, it’s worth a listen on YouTube.
As we departed, a member of my group, while learning of Mr. Beck’s age and history, commented, “I always hear about Eric Clapton being so great; this guy is really good, too.” Indeed.
At least $1,500 per show of good.