Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jeff Beck brings an Orchestra and Keeps Guitarists' Jaws on the Floor

As the battle for the California Governorship rages between Meg Whitman and her billion dollar advertising schtick and the painfully low key campaign of Jerry Brown, the state of California was treated to a different kind of Guv'nor on April 17th, as Jeff Beck took to the stage at the Nokia Theater. Beck is currently on tour in promotion of his wonderful new album, Emotion and Commotion, where he teams his guitar fireworks with a 64-piece orchestra to create his first studio record in seven years. To perform the material from the new record, Beck has taken a full string, horn and percussion section in tow with him. When needed, a light shines on the orhestra and conductor. When their time is done, the lights go off and are only on Beck, bassist Rhonda, Smith, keyboardist Jason Rebello, and drummer Narada Michael Walden.

For many years, Jeff has been labeled a grumpy Englishman with a volatile temperament that has often prevented him from enjoying great success; he famously broke up the first incarnation of the Jeff Beck Group on the eve of Woodstock, quite possibly missing the opportunity to receive the adulation that peers like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix would later receive. A noted perfectionist, many of his partnerships with other musicians have ended acriminously.

However, in recent years, Beck has been enjoying himself and as a result, he has been reaping greater results. A few years ago, he hired manager Harvey Goldsmith and has been having astronomical success. In 2007, he was featured at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival and put on a memorable 11 song set that was captured on DVD. He put out the phenomenal Live at Ronnie Scott's CD/DVD in 2008, which earned him a Grammy for his instrumental version of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." In 2009, he was inducted by childhood friend, Led Zeppelin founder, and fellow Yardbird, Jimmy Page into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his solo efforts(he had previously been inducted, along with Page, Eric Clapton and others as a member of the Yardbirds) and put on a memorable set and closed out the ceremony by jamming with Page, Rolling Stone guitarist Ron Wood, Flea, Joe Perry, and Metallica on the Yardbirds classic "Train Kept A 'Rollin." Later that summer, he finally buried the hatchet with fellow British guitar legend Eric Clapton for legendary sets in Tokyo, Japan which led to a mini tour with Clapton in England, New York City and Toronto.

This night, Beck was seen as someone who had nothing to prove to anyone but himself. After an impressive set by Zappa Plays Zappa-a band that features Dweezil son of absurdist composer Frank Zappa playing his father's material-Beck strutted out on the stage in a sleeveless button-up with flames, John Lennon Glasses, White Space boots and purple-striped sweats, toting his legendary white Fender Stratocaster. The entire audience had their jaws agape as Beck opened with "Stratus."

Throughout each song, drummer Walden, a new addition to the band, made sure his presence was known. Aptly dressed in an attire slightly resembled a sushi chef, he proceded to chop of the rhythm and pummel through Beck's riffing and giving a firm grounding to the improvisation going on with the rest of the band. Bassist Rhonda Smith, another new addition, proved her proweress on the four string with slapping bass solos and melodic lines that weaved in and out of the melodies of the song, as well as providing stellar vocals with Walden on Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want to Take you Higher" and on her own, morphing Muddy Water's "Rollin' and Tumblin'" from a Delta Blues rollicker to a dark, hoodoo tinged dirge, aided by robotic vocals by Rebello, proving that in scarity and in the right place, auto-tune does not make you want to shoot yourself.

The real players to keep your eye on however, were the orchestra. On songs like "Corpus Christi Carol" and "Somewhere over the Rainbow" the orchestra provides beautiful atmospheres, allowing Jeff to mimic the vocal lines, by way of manipulating his guitar's whammy bar and volume knobs. Where most guitarists keep their volume knobs on ten, Jeff uses his to create crescendos and swelling sounds, giving his licks a vocal feel and where other guitarists use the whammy bar solely for guitar theatrics, Beck uses it to add extra vibrato to the notes. When coupled with a full orchestra, Beck's guitar turns from a crying maiden to a powerful operatic singer, capable of tenor to baritone.

This does not diminish Jeff's abilities when playing solely with his band however. On songs like "Space Boogie" and my personal favorite "Big Block" Jeff's guitar attacks like Andrew Jackson at Horseshoe Bend, destroying everything in its path. Other places, he is capable of playing his guitar with absolute grace such as his version of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," all the while looking so cool, even when he dropped his slide on the song "Angel (Footsteps)."

Beck closed out his initial set with his aforementioned Grammy-winning arrangement of the Beatles "A Day in the Life." This was the only case of the orchestra performing a song not on the new album, as when Beck initially recorded the song, he did so with a full orchestra, per the request of Beatles producer Sir George Martin. On this song, Beck is able to perfectly affectate the tenderness in John Lennon's voice on the Sgt. Pepper classic as well as the violence of the climax in the middle, and when aided by the orchestra, becomes a guitar wizard. By the end of the song, there was not a person sitting in their seat; everyone was applauding or roaring with adulation.

For the encore Beck returned with Rebello playing guitar and Beck pulling out the classic black Les Paul seen on the cover sleeve his bestselling LP, Blow by Blow. He did so, he said in honor of late guitar innovator Les Paul, who died this past August. Beck had become close friends with Les over the years and Beck actually inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Earlier this year, Beck performed with Imelda May, who appears on his new album, for a righteous version of the Les Paul/Mary Ford chestnut "How High the Moon." Here, Beck reprised that performance. Beck was faithful to the original, not deviating from Les' spaghetti string lines. It was a memorable moment because it reminded people that Jeff is a musician just like anyone else and he has heroes and people he looked up to; it gave this seemingly non-human guitar warrior a shade of humanity.

For the closer, Beck and the orchestra performed "Nessun Dorma" from Turnadot. Here, Beck flowed with the orchestra and followed the peaks and valleys. However, by the end, he would not be denied and there he stood, at 65 years old, soaring high above every other guitarist; a monument to the beauty of the six string. At the end, during the applause, Beck said "I have nothing left." If that is the case, he can certainly walk away from this set with a sense of pride.

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