Thursday, September 27, 2012

Seeing fire and fusion from Jeff Beck

EDITOR'S NOTE:  The following was first published in a Facebook note April 14, 2011.

I've seen and heard Jeff Beck so many times through the years through various forms of media -- vinyl albums, cassettes, CDs, DVDs, Internet videos -- that you'd think there's nothing he could do to impress me anymore.

You'd be thinking wrong.

Jeff Beck
The closest I've come to seeing Jeff Beck in concert until Wednesday night (at The Depot in downtown Salt Lake City) had been seeing his Live At Ronnie Scott's DVD from 2008, along with a host of videos on YouTube.  But seeing him in person, with over 1,000 other diehard fans who waited in a long line for 1-2 hours just before the doors to the sold-out music venue even opened (snaking along the sidewalk of the historic old Union Pacific building while fans of the Utah Jazz also made their way to the last game of the season across the street at Energy Solutions Arena, trying to get the best spot possible for a general admission ticket) took it to a whole new level.

Beck isn't just a master of the electric guitar.  He's a true bandleader, coaxing the absolute most out of bandmates Narada Michael Walden on drums and vocals, Rhonda Smith on bass and vocals, and Jason Rebello on keys, synthesized vocals, and a small bit of rhythm guitar, and praising them on stage for jobs well done.

There were a fair amount of similarities to the Ronnie Scott's DVD as far as the setlist, but also some VERY pleasant surprises as he kicked off this leg of a U.S. tour to back his 2010 album "Emotion & Commotion" along with one memorable nod to the late Les Paul and Beck's most recent live tribute to his own guitar hero with his "Rock & Roll Party" CD and DVD, released just a few weeks ago, as the band played the Les Paul/Mary Ford standard "How High The Moon" in the middle of a three-song encore.

The first song of the encore was just one of the surprises of the night, as the band played the Sly & The Family Stone classic "I Want To Take You Higher" and funked it up the way it was meant to be.  The evening ended with the soaring "Nessun Dorma."

 Actually, the first song of the night was a bit of a surprise too.  They set the tone for the night by pulling out the seldom-heard-live tune "Plan B" from the last of his techno albums, "Jeff."  From the get-go, Narada Michael Walden was a beast on the drums, and he never let up.  His playing was muscular and precise.  Rhonda Smith matched every bit of Walden's funkiness as they held down the rhythm through every tune.

Next up was the Billy Cobham jazz piece "Stratus, followed by the booming power of Beck's "Led Boots."  The tone softened dramatically with "Corpus Christi Carol" from the "Emotion" album, followed immediately by the "commotion" of the Grammy-winning "Hammerhead."

Another surprise came up in "Mná na h-Éireann (Women of Ireland)," a song composed by Seán Ó Riada (1931–1971). The poem, on which the music is based, was written by Peadar Ó Dornín (?1704–1769), under the category of Irish rebel music, or -- as Beck introduced it -- "Irish blues," honoring the memory of the women dedicated to Ireland, specifically the Irish nationalist movement.

What followed was a kickin' bass solo by Smith.  Then it was on to the "gospel soul" of "People Get Ready," minus vocals -- but with Beck on guitar, there's usually not much need for vocals even on a song with lyrics.  Beck's guitar usually does the singing the way he plays it.

There was a blast from the past as they went back to the 1980 album "There and Back" with the tune "You Never Know," but then it was back to the electronica era with the modernized blues song "Rollin' & Tumblin'" from "You Had It Coming," and Rhonda handled those vocals very well.  It was on to the "Guitar Shop" album from there with "Big Block."

Next up was the sweetness of Beck's take on "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," with the band draining every ounce of emotion out of that beauty.

Then there was one of the bigger surprises of the night, as they launched into the Jimi Hendrix gem "Little Wing" with Narada taking vocals.  It was a joy to behold as Beck not only played in his own signature style, but also brought to life the genius of those who've gone on to rest who've handled that tune so brilliantly before and set the guitar playing bar so high themselves in the past; Hendrix and the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughn.

As usual, Beck pulled every bit of his whammy bar tricks out from "Blast From The East.  The biggest glitch of the evening came as they barely got into "Two Rivers," with some connection problems for Smith's bass causing a slight delay to get rid of some loud buzzing while that was fixed (though Beck helped pass the time, ever the showman, by launching into a bit of a countrified jam) before picking right back up again from the beginning.

Smith handled brief, seductive vocals again on "Dirty Mind," which featured a blistering drum solo from Narada.  And no matter how many times I hear "Brush With The Blues," it blows me away just as it did in this show.

One of the coolest experiences I've seen in a concert came in the finale before the encore, with Beck's instrumental treatment of the timeless "A Day In The Life."  As soon as that song started, you could hear people in the crowd start to sing along.  And that signature final chord ... well, they milked every bit of psychedelia out of that.

Again, I've heard so many of these songs so many times, but they all managed to still seem fresh and new throughout this show.  The words that could be heard coming from people's mouths -- "in the presence of greatness," "mark that off of my 'bucket list'" -- was a testament to the impact the show and Beck's playing had on the enthusiastic audience.  One guy I spoke to as I stood three rows back from the middle of the stage (somehow managing to end up five rows back without even stepping back myself) drove from Portland just to see this show, simply because there was no Beck show any closer to his home than the SLC opener.  Afterwards, he said the trip was definitely worth it.

This is a memory that will last a very long time.

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