It’s easy to love a Monet, an Ansel Adams, the Red Album Beatles. They are masterful yet accessible; the beauty of their work does not require a great deal of effort for their audience to discern. It’s a little more of a challenge to connect with an artist like a Picasso or an Andy Warhol or, since 1972, a Jeff Beck.
Since parting ways with first Rod Stewart and then with the entire idea of a vocal pop band, Beck has done two things. One is to repeatedly confirm his status as one of the most exceptionally talented guitarists of his era. The other is to make whatever kind of music he felt like that week/month/year/decade (twice in his career he has made only one album in a ten-year stretch) — critics, record labels and his audience be damned.
The results have varied from exhilirating (the blistering jazz-fusion of Blow By Blow and Wired) to invigorating (the heavy album rock of Guitar Shop) to exasperating (the electronica-flooded You Had It Coming). And most of those same adjectives apply to his latest outing, Performing This Week… Live At Ronnie Scott’s, plus one more — astonishing.
The thing it’s important to understand about Beck is that there is simply no one else on earth who plays like him. Sure, there have been plenty of guitarists who have mastered speed-riffing, sustain, effects pedals, bent notes, tapping, etc., etc. But no one does what Beck does, which is, more often than not, to throw the entire bag of tricks into a single song, pour a lifetime’s worth of passion into his playing, and make it all work together. On a track off of 2001’s Jeff, guest Saffron raps “If the voice don’t say it, the guitar will play it.” Exactly. Except, most vocalists only wish they had the range of tone and emotion and expressiveness Beck manages using only six strings, ten fingers, and a few knobs and pedals. This album’s liner notes put it another way: “So does Beck play rock, blues, jazz, techno, funk, world music or rockabilly? The answer is yes. And often all of them at once.”
Opener “Beck’s Bolero” has all the bombast and technical wizardry of the Truth original, with 30 years’ worth of accumulated wisdom augmenting it. Future generations will listen to this recording for hours trying to figure how he got all those tones and flavors out of one guitar, live, on the fly. I don’t have a clue, myself.
Next he offers a nod to a major influence with a quick run at John McLaughlin’s “Eternity’s Breath” before stepping into the sixth dimension, wrenching otherworldly squonks and bleats out of his ax between runs at the assertive central riff of Billy Cobham’s “Stratus.” Soon after, “Behind The Veil” feels like an inside-out instrumental run at Eric Clapton’s version of “I Shot The Sheriff,” with its bluesy soloing over a reggae-tinged rhythm section.
“You Never Know,” from 1980’s There & Back, is one of the final statements from Beck’s Jan Hammer fusion phase and fits like a glove with the later-on (and spectacular) “Led Boots” from its predecessor Wired. In between, the gorgeous “Nadia” eases the throttle back and provides a spacious backdrop for a series of runs that range from swerving s-curves to gently soulful sustain. “Angel (Footsteps)” finds Beck soloing high on the fretboard over a slumbering blues rhythm section, bending notes to the point where they twirl like a kaleidoscope.
On “Big Block,” like the closing “Where Were You” taken from 1990’s Guitar Shop, Beck’s bandmates build a heavy foundation over which he layers solos that sound like Jimmy Page as heard through a trans-galactic wormhole — fat, shredding runs of distorted, extended notes that sound as otherworldly as anything Joe Satriani as ever managed.
A special treat near the finish is Beck’s mind-blowing take on “A Day In The Life,” a model of restraint in the early going as the maestro gives it a straight-up Albert Collins-style blues treatment and massages the melody beautifully. And then the psychedelic middle section breaks in and Beck is all over the place, spitting out phrases in multiple different voicings in a seeming attempt to cover every vocal and melodic nuance of the original with just his single lead instrument. Holy virtuoso, Batman. Un-fricking-believable.
As mentioned in the opening of this review, this is not an easy album to love. It twists and turns and sheds and adopts musical identities as quickly as an actor in a one-man show with 14 speaking parts. But for the audience member with the fortitude to listen and perhaps learn from one of the greatest guitarists of our time, my advice is simple: buy this and prepare to have your mind blown.
Performing This Week… Live at Ronnie Scott’s, recorded during a 2007 run at the renowned London club, is Jeff Beck’s first release on the Eagle label after a long-standing tenure on Epic Records. It’s an understatement to say it bodes well for the continued vigor of the man who replaced Eric Clapton in The Yardbirds.
Recent setlists haven’t varied dramatically on Beck’s last few tours, and the length of performances here never exceeds six minutes, so this isn’t exactly a laboratory exercise in improvisation. But this seventy-minute cd isn’t merely a cross-section of Jeff Beck’s career suggesting his embrace of its different phases. Nor does it just offer an exhibition of the sequencing logic of sixteen selections that creates a cumulative momentum. Nor is it only a display of how the guitarist and his band do justice to this varied material.
Live at Ronnie Scott’s constitutes a series of revelations about the love/hate affair Jeff Beck conducts with his instrument grounded in his mercurial touch. The bittersweet nuance he applies to “Nadia,” for instance, is that of a wizened musician who has not just retained but honed his personality over the course of time. Equally sinewy and soft on “Stratus,” the very sound of the British icon’s guitar is a mix of blues and jazz tone no less carefully proportioned than one-time tourmate Stevie Ray Vaughan or, perhaps, even T-Bone Walker. (And it’s arguable the iconoclastic Beck is as influential an innovator as the latter.)
In the midst of this emphatic illustration of individualism, Jeff Beck imbues the music he plays—as well as his on-stage relationships with the musicians, here including drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and keyboardist Jason Rebello—with the pure joy of the moment. The foursome is fully engaged in creating the haunting mood of “Angel (Footsteps).” In ample demonstration of the abandon and the restraint at their collective command, the quartet tears through “Back’s Bolero,” then decelerates without missing a beat or note to deftly allow the leader to finger a few exquisite notes in quiet closing. And the infectious relish Beck demonstrates these days on stage also translates into a generosity of spirit and humility, so that precocious bassist Tal Wilkenfeld authors her own well-embroidered solo on “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers.”
Charles Shaar Murray deserves to gush in his liner notes for Jeff Beck Performing this Week… Live at Ronnie Scott’s, but less of the British journalist’s fractured prose and more photos of Beck on stage with his band would present a better visual counterpart to the dynamism of the music inside. Still, the sound quality of the concert mix, pristine and ever-so-present, is more than enough to compensate for those relatively minor design and packaging shortfalls. As much as it captures the vibrancy of the music within, this outstanding clarity might well represent a metaphor of Jeff Beck’s approach to playing these days.
Of the trifecta of British “guitar gods” that emerged in the late-’60s—Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page—Beck is the one who, regardless of style, has best embodied the spirit of jazz. His performances are always chancy propositions because he’s always been about taking great risks, and they don’t always work. Whether or not Beck’s shows are totally successful, they’re always worth the ride because he makes complete exposure the very lifeblood of his music. When Beck is on—as he clearly was during the week from which Performing This Week… Live at Ronnie Scott’s was culled—there are few who can touch him for sheer emotiveness, raw energy and a near- vocal expressiveness that leaves most guitarists in his wake trying to figure out just how he does it.
Still, how he does it is not as important as that he does it, since Beck has demonstrated a frustrating tendency to disappear without notice and then suddenly reappear on the scene throughout his lengthy career. With one of his best live groups in years—keyboardist Jason Rebello, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and young bass phenom Tal Wilkenfeld—Beck is at the top of his game, burning through a 70-minute set of material ranging from the gripping “Beck’s Bolero,” from his 1968 debut, Truth (Epic), to the seemingly-impossible bends of the amblingly up-tempo “Nadia,” from You Had It Coming (Epic, 2001). Beck also pays homage to contemporaries John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham on a smoking “Eternity’s Breath,” from Visions of the Emerald Beyond (Legacy, 1975) that segues into the hard-rocking “Stratus,” from Spectrum (Atlantic, 1973).
Beck’s tone has always been instantly recognizable, proving the magic is in the hands, not the technology. While the distinctive quality of Beck’s playing has always been acknowledged, he’s rarely provided evidence of the kind of virtuosity that would place him on par with guitarists like McLaughlin. His vernacular may not be as broad, but when it comes to shredding, Beck’s high octane virtuosity on the frenzied and lightning-fast version of “Scatterbrain,” from his classic Blow by Blow (Epic, 1975), is just plain staggering. Elsewhere, Stevie Wonder’s “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” also from Blow by Blow, finds Beck at his most poignant; his judicious use of whammy bar, volume control and naturally impeccable note placement making it a definitive performance of this enduring tune.
Colaiuta and Rebello are ideal accompanists, with plenty of cathartic energy when needed and no shortage of viscerally propulsive rhythms. Performing This Week’s other star is, however, Wilkenfeld, who seemingly came out of nowhere a couple years back as one of the most versatile and exciting young electric bassists to emerge in years, capable of unshakable grooves and solos that demonstrate a maturity and taste beyond her years.
With a stellar group, a stunning cross-section of career-defining material and his own playing never better, Performing This Week… Live at Ronnie Scott’s is the live album Jeff Beck fans have been waiting for…and the perfect entry point for those who’ve never had the pleasure of making his acquaintance.