Performing now … the one and only Jeff Beck

Late last year, Jeff Beck released his third live album since 2006, Performing This Week … Live At Ronnie Scott’s, recorded at the legendary London jazz club. Later this month, a DVD of the performance will be released by Eagle Rock Entertainment.

beckronnies-2Beck, acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest guitar players, has had a varied career that started in earnest with the Yardbirds, replacing Eric Clapton, through two versions of the blues-rock based Jeff Beck Group and on to a long run at the forefront of fusion music. When Beck made the transition to jazz-rock  in the ’70s, he finally started garnering appropriate accolades for his prowess. As the guitarist in the Yardbirds, he was well-known to the general public in England but not so much in the States. Still, as early as the mid-’60s he was experimenting with extraordinary sounds on the guitar before many of the decade’s guitar heroes, including Jimi Hendrix, who cited Beck as an influence.

He is currently on tour with the proficient and powerful quartet that recorded at Ronnie Scott’s with him and includes Jason Rebello, keyboards, Vinnie Colaiuta, drums and young Australian wunderkind Tal Wilkenfeld, bass. Beck will be stopping in Connecticut at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods April 11.

So why three live albums since 2006? Well, the latest is really the first of the three to enjoy a wide-ranging release. Live at B.B. King’s (from 2003, released in ’06) was an import that is now apparently out of print and only available through places like the Amazon Marketplace for about $45. Official Live Bootleg USA ’06 (2007), originally sold at shows, is also fetching the same price on the open market but is actually also available at Jeff Beck’s website for $15.

Ronnie Scott’s has 11 of its 16 tracks in common with Official Live Bootleg’s 14, and nine in common with Live At B.B. King’s 16. So it would seem there isn’t a great deal of difference among the three, at least in repertoire. But if you had to own one it should be Ronnie Scott’s. The sound is the best of the three and the performances are standard-bearers for Beck’s catalogue.

The set opens with Beck’s Bolero from the seminal blues-rock album Truth by the Jeff Beck Group, with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. Originally the B-side of a Beck single that preceded Truth, the bombastic production of the recorded version that featured one-half of the future Led Zeppelin (John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page, who wrote it), Nicky Hopkins on piano and Keith Moon on drums, is replaced here with a tight sounding masterpiece of economy and passion, featuring the recognizable melodic lines of the original with improvised segments.

It’s followed by John McLaughlin’s Eternity’s Breath, which serves as an intro to Billy Cobham’s classic Stratus, from the album Spectrum, a record that helped establish the fusion movement in the early 1970s. It’s also probably a bow to Tommy Bolin, who played lead on the original and died in the mid-1970s of an overdose while on tour with Beck. The tune fits Beck like a glove and one wonders why it’s taken him so long to make it  his own.

The first 10 songs on the album are by other writers, including three by Tony Hymas (Behind The Veil, Blast From The Past and Angel), who produced Beck’s most successful album artistically in the past two decades, Who Else? The Jan Hammer tune You Never Know, Stevie Wonder’s Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers and Max Middleton’s Led Boots from the album Wired are also among the first 10 tracks and all presented here in note perfect and heartfelt performances. Angel is Beck at his most lyrical employing the hybrid technique of only using his thumb and fingers, having eschewed using a pick long ago.

The frantic Scatterbrain, from Blow By Blow, is kicked up a notch higher in tempo than its recorded version, the Mingus tune Goodbye Pork Pie Hat intros to Beck’s own Brush With The Blues, the two of which share a similar feel, and Hymas’ Space Boogie, Big Block, a Hymas-Beck-Terry Bozio composition, and the exquisite interpretation of the Beatles’ Day In The Life lead to the finale Where Were You, another Hymas-Beck-Bozio tune.

Where Were You is particularly noteworthy. It features Beck’s technique of playing the strings with just the vibrato arm after producing a harmonic with his left fingertips, something he originated with this tune on the album Guitar Shop.

A word about his band members. Colaiuta has probably been with Beck the longest and he is a consummate drummer, dynamic, driving, explosive and technically rarely equalled. Rebello exhibits tasteful wizardry on keys and Wilkenfeld, 22, is matured as a player well beyond her years. She takes an inspired solo on Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers and is solid throughout matching Beck on all the uptempo unison lines.

The DVD will include 13 of the tracks on the CD and one additional tune, People Get Ready with Joss Stone guesting.

I’ve seen Beck three times since 1969 and plan on seeing the Foxwoods show. The most recent was at Oakdale in 1999, with a band that included Colaiuta and guitarist Jennifer Batten, in a mind-boggling performance that has been preserved on a widely distributed gray-market item. Previous to that, I caught him on his Wired tour at the Waterbury Palace in the mid-1970s with Jan Hammer, a tour that would later produce a live album. It was another stellar night of pyrotechnics.

The first time though was probably the most interesting from a historical viewpoint if not from a performance one. In support of the Truth album in May, 1969, the original Jeff Beck Group was booked for two shows at Woolsey Hall at Yale. I had tickets for the second show, so we didn’t show up until about 9 p.m.

The opening act was Rhinoceros, a New York based heavy rock outfit, with an album on Elektra. Although we didn’t know it at the time we arrived, Rhinoceros evidently blew the audience away in the first show leaving little reaction for Beck and his group. I’ve seen this happen to headliners a few times over the years and it’s a very strange phenomenon.

So we were startled from our second-row seats to the right of the stage when the Jeff Beck Group opened the second show. As to Beck’s performance, it was fine. They played most of the material from Truth and sounded good if not great with the addition of Hopkins on an upright piano. It was a joy to finally see him and hear Stewart sing live (I didn’t realize Beck actually sang part of Let Me Love You), but they did seem in a bit of a hurry to leave the premises.

We later heard Rhinoceros’ set was a good one, but we weren’t really interested in seeing them and didn’t stay. It wasn’t until talking with James Velvet, a fixture on the New Haven rock circuit for years, about different concerts we’d seen in common that he told me the details about the first Rhinoceros set. Now Beck opening the second set finally made sense to me. The group evidently didn’t want their crew to bother breaking down and resetting the equipment only to be upstaged again, so they opened their own concert for the second show! Then they made a quick getaway, never to return to New Haven.

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