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Jeff Beck, Paramount Theatre, Denver, April 15, 2011
Jeff Beck image by Future Publishing
Jazz-rock fusion originally came from the jazz side; Miles and his sidemen-turned-leaders: Weather Report, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra. But a few practitioners came at it from the rock side. Jeff Beck is one of those. Not surprisingly, he emphasized the rock angle a little more than the jazz guys. Maybe "rock-jazz" is a good name. Getting his start in the 1960s blues-rock scene with the Yardbirds, Beck went on to form the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart on vocals and later Bob Tench as the lead singer. Even in those days in the early 70s, some jazz was creeping into his music. (Hear, "Situation" from the 1971 album "Rough and Ready.") By 1975, he hit rock-jazz gold (platinum, actually) with the "Blow by Blow" album. By then he had dispensed with the vocals in favor of an all-instrumental album. 1976's "Wired" was just as successful (and just as instrumental) and even included Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" to drive home the jazz influence.
In 2011, Jeff Beck and his band focus mainly on the rock-jazz sound that was successful for him in the 1970s with some 21st Century electronica thrown in. Of course, Beck's inimitable guitar style remains as well. And there still isn't much singing. And he still sold out the Paramount Theatre. Friday night Beck reveled in jazz-rock history with "Stratus" as his second tune of the night. That's one from Billy Cobham's 1973 fusion classic "Spectrum." The original featured the legendary Tommy Bolin on guitar; another rocker who dipped his pick into the fusion world.
Beck played in a quartet format Friday night and as expected, each player was top flight. Long time Beck collaborator Narada Michael Walden played like a man with something to prove. He even provided one of the evening's rare vocals on Hendrix' "Little Wing." His singing was a little on the thin side, but his drumming was explosive, energetic and propulsive throughout the 90 minute set. Walden is a bit of fusion history himself. He played on Beck's "Wired" album and wrote about half the songs. Before that time he had drummed for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Later, he went on to record eleven albums under his own name.
Rhonda Smith on bass was equally effective as Walden in laying down not just a solid foundation, but one that could not be ignored. Her muscular playing contrasted nicely with her stiletto heels. She, too, contributed a vocal or two; most notably on one of only two blues tunes of the evening, "Rollin' and Tumblin'." Her vocal style was mainly a growl, but that's just fine for the blues.
Jason Rebello on keyboards often recreated the sound of one of Beck's old compatriots, Jan Hammer. Also, he occasionally added some weird heavily synthesized vocals. Rebello claims some jazz cred through his past work with people like Wayne Shorter, Art Blakey, Gary Burton, Bradford Marsalis and others. He's no stranger to the rock-jazz genre having toured with Sting following the death of Kenny Kirkland.
Beck was in fine form Friday night, coaxing a wide variety of sounds out of his blonde Stratocaster. He switched axes for an identical looking Strat on "Little Wing" and recreated the delicate, transparent Hendrix guitar sound to great effect. The only other kind of guitar he played all evening was a Gibson Les Paul during his tribute to...Les Paul. Up until about a week before Friday's show at the Paramount, Beck had been on the road with his "Rock 'n' Roll Tour" which was a tribute to guitarist Les Paul. He featured Irish singer Imelda May on a selection of pop and rock tunes mainly from the 50s and 60s. Friday night, he played "How High the Moon" from the Rock 'n' Roll Tour. This version featured prerecorded three part harmony female vocals, most likely from Ms. May.
Following his Rock 'n' Roll Tour, Beck reunited with his band and played a gig in Salt Lake City a couple nights previous. The Paramount gig was just the band's second on this tour, but the playing was extremely tight and obviously well rehearsed. The song selection was designed for contrasts. For example, the aforementioned "How High the Moon" directly followed a bombastic cover of Sly Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher." Throughout the evening, Beck shifted moods by following a couple intense tunes with a dreamy interlude, often just played by him and Rebello on some spacey synthesizers. A highlight of that category was "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Another one along those lines was the final piece of the evening "Nessun Dorma" a lush, almost symphonic piece that sounded a little like "America, the Beautiful." (Wait, Beck's from Britain!)
Beck plays with his fingers rather than a pick. That's one technique he uses to pull the vast array of sounds from his guitar. He used a wah-wah pedal on occasion, but otherwise, it was mainly just Beck and his Stratocaster. His style is a little hard to pin down because it seems he can play just about anything. Most often, he has a jagged, angular style that doesn't necessarily produce solos you'll be whistling on the way home, but are continually inventive. Hearing Beck play some blues is always fun. His approach is different from nearly all other blues guitarists. This made "Rollin' and Tumblin'" a highlight for the fresh insights and unexpected twists and turns. Another highlight was the cover of "A Day in the Life." Here, again, Beck used a contrast to great effect, this time on the McCartney inspired bridge ("Woke up/Got out of bed..."). Instead of the bouncy pop of the original, Beck laid down the heavy metal hammer for some anti-McCartney sonic fun.
Now 66, Beck shows no sign of letting up or slowing down. He has a full tour schedule this year taking his band around the world. And, most importantly, he still sports that Rolling Stones haircut.
Set List (from Beck's website)
Mna Na Eirann
People Get Ready
You Never Know
Rollin' and Tumblin'
Over the Rainbow
Blast From the East
Brush with the Blues
Day in the Life
I Want to Take You Higher
How High the Moon
Jeff Beck, guitar
Rhonda Smith, bass, vocals
Narada Michael Walden, drums, vocals
Jason Rebello, keyboards