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March 29, 2010

Stratospheric

Filed under: 2010,Archive,Music

2010

Stratospheric

Jeff Beck

Her Majesty’s

Adelaide

March 25, 2010

Murray Bramwell

What is it about The Yardbirds ?  There was definitely something in the water in 1965. Three guitarists and three legends.  First, Eric Clapton, aka God, who soon left for John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and a career via Cream, the Dominos, and then as a bandleader defining blues rock guitar for a long, lucrative, and sometimes repetitive, career. Later, there was Jimmy Page, who as the chords, riff and flash-fingered lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin, was  quite simply – even more than Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones –  the engine behind the archetypal, the most famous, heavy rock band in history. The glory days of Zep were the glory days of late modern rock and Jimmy Page defined it, in all its gaudy splendor.

Then, in the middle, was Jeff Beck, who joined in 1965 and in the following year uneasily shared the stage with Page as the band produced such classic singles as Shapes of Things and Over Under, Sideways Down. Tetchy even then, Beck headed into a career of solo ventures and temporary, if historic collaborations. From single success with Hi Ho Silver Lining, to ventures with Rod Stewart and members of US prog band Vanilla Fudge, and then solo projects such as Blow by Blow in 1979, Jeff Beck has put together a long, stop-start career that sometimes made him seem – compared to Clapton in his Armani suits and Page basking in rock Valhalla – like the also-ran.

Now, touring for the second time in a year, Beck is again showing that slow and steady wins the race. There has always been a method in his singular pursuit of his talent. Always working with talented session musicians, connecting with the more progressive American scene, linking with jazz-fusion operatives like Jan Hammer. It may have seemed like he has dithered, that his fondness for privacy – one suspects a mix of diffidence and impatience with fools and poseurs – has come at a high price as far as recognition is concerned. But recognition has come. And it is considerable and well deserved.

It was perhaps the Live at Ronnie Scott’s set in 2008 that marked the turning point. A ten night booking at the famous London jazz club, it brought in the faces – Plant, Page, Eric even did a guest spot (which has led to tour dates this year). In the intimate club space, joined by a hot band, and step-up singers Joss Stone and Imogen Heap, he put together a list that combined early work from Blow by Blow with new compositions and arrangements that showcased his remarkable gift. The CD and Blu-ray DVD releases also helped, the latter fastidiously documenting his extraordinary technique and unorthodox stage set-up.

The Adelaide show at Her Majesty’s opens Beck’s 2010 Australian tour and the band takes to the stage with intent.  Keyboardist  Jason Rebello continues from the Ronnie Scott period but jazz rock veteran Narada Michael Walden now replaces Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. Australian fans will be sorry that the smart young Aussie girl-bassist Tal Wilkenfeld is not in the line-up, but American musician, Rhonda Smith, with a CV including time in Prince’s band, is a formidable replacement.

Beck is, of course, the last to arrive, shyly acknowledging the noisy applause. He is as eccentric-looking as ever. His hair combed forward in that mop-top thatch that defined an earlier time, the black waistcoat and foppish white shirt ruffle harking back to London’s King’s Road in the mid-sixties – when the Kinks, Stones, Yardbirds and Pretty Things roamed the earth. With pebble-black granny glasses on the bridge of his beaky nose and his skinny bare arms clamped with Druidic looking silver bands, he is the die-hard English rock star. Coming up for sixty-six this year, he is still bucking the trends and defying gentrification. What matters, as ever, is that white Fender Stratocaster, resting in the crook of his elbow- like it has always lived there.

The band play a wide range of material from Beck originals and group jams to standards and opera classics. But throughout it all, Beck creates the threads, the throughlines, the gathering themes and feelings which make it such an impressive and memorable night’s music. For openers, he goes fast and loud, establishing the band’s credentials and getting everyone a bit of match time. Rhonda Smith steps up to the plate with her funk-inflected, assertive bass work, Michael Walden, presiding over a huge drum-kit, shows the range and also the restraint which keeps him close to Beck, something which will increase as the tour progresses, because the nuances in Beck’s guitar work – and his skilful dips in volume, but never intensity – are a challenge to all the band members.

Like a flash storm the unannounced opening piece slips into, of all things, Benjamin Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol, delicately phrased with synth washes from Rebello. It is a portent of the lyric subtlety to come. And, unlike the full-tilt segue to Hammerhead on the Emotion and Commotion album, it is followed by an impressive bass solo, complete with Jaco glissandos, from Ms Smith.

Peering at printed sheets, taped in various vantage points near monitors, Beck works through his setlist. But it is the covers and standards which are most compelling. His heavy driving version of Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Read is spot-on, Smith providing the Etta James vocals as she also does for the fast-bop take of the Cream classic, Rollin’ and Tumblin’. For a change of mood (and a calculated risk) comes Over the Rainbow, and Beck coaxes, as he so magically does, that vulnerable lyricism, that tremulous tremolo which is, of course, the Garland signature.

The highlights come late – but this is also the inexorable build-up of the band’s performance. A dazzling reading of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, fluent, fierce and flawless and A Day in the Life. I heard the news today oh boy. Beck snares all of John Lennon’s sardonic swagger before turning back into the song’s ambiguous whimsy. Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head. Neil Young has given us a scary version. Jeff Beck’s is sharp, it’s almost sweet, and it is inescapably… English.  It is a virtuosic point to close the show. The encores are interestingly variant. Toting a black Gibson Les Paul, Beck plays tribute to the late great guitar master by effortlessly matching his rockabilly riffs, while Rebello conjures up an other-worldly sample of Mary Paul crooning Steal My Heart Away.

To close, it is Nessun Dorma, Puccini – poached first by Pavarotti, and then  milked, by soccer teams and commerce,  of every squelch of emotion that could be wrung from it. Again, Beck is in complete control, stepping – impishly – between the Scylla of kitsch and the Charybdis of even more kitsch. Women in the audience are swooning and it is suavely done, but for me it’s a bridge too far. That said, it has been an extraordinary set. As he pumps sound through old valve amps and winds the tremolo like a magician’s wand, Jeff Beck has managed a kind of alchemy. Without plectrum, smoke or mirrors, he not only makes electricity dance, he makes it sing – like no-one else can .

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