Jeff Beck
Performing This Week... Live At Ronnie Scott's
(Eagle Records/Eagle Vision)

I have to admit I was more than a bit surprised when I read (somewhere, about two years ago) that Jeff Beck was scheduled to play a whole series of concerts (to be precise: five) in the course of one week, in the world-famous, London-based jazz club called Ronnie Scott's. The reason for my being surprised? Well... It's true that Beck (Jeff) is one of the very few rock guitar players who can brilliantly combine fire and finesse; it's also true that Ronnie Scott's is decidedly on the small side (I think it can accommodate about 250 people), plus it's always been famous for its decades-long policy of hosting jazz concerts of the acoustic kind, not walls of Marshalls turned up to 11. But Beck (Jeff) has always been a man of many surprises, so... (Here's just one unexpected thing off the interview that's featured in the DVD-V: After arriving at the conclusion that the whole week of concerts has been a great success, both in terms of audience enthusiasm and critical opinion, there's the obvious question about "If asked, would you do it again?"; his answer? something like: "No, not at all; I don't think so".)

Guitar in hand, Jeff Beck began surprising the rock world during his stay with the Yardbirds (here the album to check is obviously the one from 1966 titled simply The Yardbirds, but universally known under the name Roger The Engineer). A brilliant lead player possessing an angular style, an experimenter with both feedback and distortion, in the course of 18 months Beck (Jeff) built a body of work that in 1992 secured his admission into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame as a member of The Yardbirds, alongside the two unknowns who had played "lead guitar" in that same group: Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.

Having his name side-by-side with his two illustrious colleagues immediately shows a wide gap in terms of both celebrity and income. It goes without saying that Beck (Jeff) is not one in need of any money: check his four Grammyİ Awards; his US Top Ten album (Blow By Blow, 1975); his being admitted for the second time, just ten days ago, in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall Of Fame, this time for his solo work; his profitable tours; and his judicious "guest artist" career, which one imagines has made compromises in his solo work more easily avoidable.

There's one important factor to be considered, though: Granted, nobody can predict the future so clearly as to think "I don't want to end up like Hendrix" right at the very moment when Hendrix is alive, rich (or so it seems), an object of envy for his colleagues, and an idol for the adoring crowds. But it's true that something made Beck (Jeff) act prudently, having him pull the plug every time it seemed world adoration was waiting for him just one step further; an act of self-sabotage, it was said at the time; but watching him play the way he plays now (at the ripe young age of... 64, or something) shows that his choice (in a nutshell: carburetors instead of needles and pills) has been the right one.

Jeff Beck is not (also) a (real) singer, nor has he ever been able to build a working relationship with any singer of the kind who can make stadium success a true possibility. Nor is he a prolific writer. His name can be filed under "interpreter". But he's a musician who possesses one of those impossible-to-mistake, fabulous instrumental "voice". Starting from the Sixties, he went all the way with feedback, distortion, harmonics, tremolo bar, legatos, echoes and reverbs, slide, wha-wha, right-hand articulation, and innovative use of both hands on the fretboard. All the "rock ingredients" have been used by Beck (Jeff) in the service of a melodic style that at various times has embraced blues, rock-blues, funky, jazz-rock, fusion, techno, "eastern" arias, quarter tones and glissandos while always sounding personal. And Beck (Jeff) is without a doubt one of the few guitar players who have given proper identity and breath to every single note.

Performing This Week... Live At Ronnie Scott's can be regarded as a nice summation of Jeff Beck's musical voyage. It's useful to consider it side-by-side with Live At B.B. King Blues Club, the "official bootleg" released in 2003. I truly believe the London album to be vastly preferable to its American counterpart: it's true that the older album (which features more or less the same tracks) features two excellent, impossible-to-mistake instrumentalists such as Tony Hymas and Terry Bozzio; it's also true, however, that when compared to the new album, the old one has a kind of "hyperactive" tone that, while perfectly suited to the big stage, can reveal to be tiring when listened to in the privacy of one's home; listening to Performing This Week... Live At Ronnie Scott's easily shows that the group successfully tried to make its sound "fit" the tiny room (which, come to think of it, is definitely not easy, if one considers how much power and force are needed in order to make rock "rock").

This quartet has Jeff Beck on guitar, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, Jason Rebello on keyboards, and Tal Wilkenfeld on electric bass. From Frank Zappa onwards, Colaiuta's work definitely needs no introduction; here he sounds like Beck's (Jeff) #1 partner: versatile, powerful, precise, inventive, great cymbal work, excellent bass drum, he's able to interpret and reinvent those parts that were originally played by such diverse drummers. Rebello is good: is role his mostly "filling the holes" in a backing capacity, but he's able to replicate Tony Hymas's orchestral backing and piano, Max Middleton's electric piano, and Jan Hammer's lead Minimoog (he obviously has great chops). The real surprise is the very young bass player, Tal Wilkenfeld, whose work here is a real joy. The fact of having sixteen tracks in seventy minutes says there are no overlong solos.

Repertory couldn't be more varied: first track is the glorious Beck's Bolero (the 12-string guitar being played offstage by a roadie), with distortion and slide; the theme from Eternity Breath, by John McLaughlin, and Billy Cobham's Stratus (which makes one think of the late Tommy Bolin) bring us back to fusion; Cause We've Ended As Lovers reminds the listener of Stevie Wonder, Blow By Blow, and Roy Buchanan; Hymas's composition fare well: the reggae Behind The Veil, the "eastern" Blast From The East, the melodic Angel (Footsteps), the fusion theme Space Boogie; as expected, we also have You Never Know by Jan Hammer, Led Boots and Scatterbrain by Max Middleton, and the by now classic medley of Mingus's Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (here only the theme is performed) and Brush With the Blues; Big Block is its usual "raw" rock; A Day In The Life is a beautiful cover of a world-famous piece in a moving performance; the harmonics by way of vibrato bar of Where Were You bring us to the album's close.

Of course, Jeff Beck plays all that's possible to play, and more.

The CD edition of Performing This Week... Live At Ronnie Scott's was released last year, in November, about one year after the concerts from which this material was taken. The DVD-V edition has just been released (there's also a Blu-Ray edition, unknown to me). For quite some time I couldn't decide whether to get the video: with just a few exceptions, I rarely enjoy a video concert past the second time; besides, I was under the impression that the material that was only featured in the DVD-V would be of limited interest to me. So I flipped a coin.

It turned out that when it comes to the "exclusive material" I was right: on vocals on People Get Ready, Joss Stone sounds to me like a classic case of "plastic soul"; Imogen Heap is miles better: Rollin' And Tumblin' comes out a bit so-so, while her own Blanket is fine (though she's not Annie Lennox); good for what they are, Little Brown Bird and You Need Love see Eric Clapton on guitar and vocals, with a certain degree of dignity.

What I hadn't taken into consideration was the possibility that the material played by the quartet, which on the CD proves to be good for those who already consider this music as being worthwhile, could be so greatly enhanced by successful, appropriate video shots. The mix of images is revelatory, with many close-ups of hands in motion to reveal the "mechanical" side of what we are listening to; but it's the interaction among the musicians, those subtle signals, their obvious degree of involvement, not to mention moments such as "look at this trill!", that make for required viewing, also (especially?) for those who, for various reasons, have no idea of what really playing an instrument really means.

This writer saw Jeff Beck on stage just once, about ten years ago: it had been a nice techno-funky line-up, featuring a lively rhythm section and Jennifer Batten's MIDI guitar creating orchestral backings. The concert was good, but I wished the place had been smaller (there were about 3,000 people), and not in the open. Jeff Beck played well, but one moment had really been transcendent: placing the slide on his right hand, he started exploring the intervals between his Stratocaster's pick-ups, and that's when I felt my hair standing; his face totally inexpressive, a model of concentration, until something - a shout from the audience, his thoughts eluding him, who knows - stopped the magic.

That Jeff Beck is a quite complex individual we know. Briefly, I can direct readers to the relationship between process and result: going back to the dialogue I quoted at the start of this review, it becomes apparent that for this artist the price and risk for getting to a certain point are of no less importance than the quality of the outcome. To get to the heart of the matter, it's enough to watch Jeff Beck saying that the musicians in his group are excellent, so "if I fail, they'll cover for me".

Great concentration on one's instrument, seeing the intention behind the result happen "in the moment", are never common, especially nowadays. Those moments when the slide goes on his right hand on Angel (Footsteps) are something else, but I'd like to direct readers towards the "wild" rock of Big Block and his cover of A Day In The Life, not only for their (excellent) aesthetic results.

Beppe Colli

İ Beppe Colli 2009 | April 14, 2009