Review by Paul H Birch, Photos by Rich Ward
Mike Sanchez’s left hand rolls deftly over an electric piano offering us boogie-woogie and some old time foot-tapping rock ’n’ roll. The featured vocalist on Jeff Beck’s Crazy Legs album, his deep resonate voice booms and croons before his right hand also decides to kiss the ivories as he drifts into a low key feel good solo before vamping it up. A big man, with a stylish Marty Wilde visual presence, his good humoured, verbose interaction with the crowd will be something sorely missed when Beck takes to the stage later. He tells us he’s with us for around the next twenty minutes and wants to get in as much as he can, not only taking us on a musical safari of rockabilly, the blues and some genuine R’n’B but reminiscing about historical local music venues with stories to match both.
His jazz-tinted cover of ‘One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer’ proves to be a far more heartbreaking lyrical reading than the usual machismo arrogance offered by most singers. ‘Forever, My Darling’ adds the dark edge of Howlin’ Wolf to his more natural Nat King Cole tone and ‘Wild One’ has him bellowing ala Tom Jones while all the time that left hand keeps delivering out 12 bar figures. A suitable length to introduce himself to newcomers; we’re told he’ll be playing gigs with his full band straight after this tour and you can even read his autobiography in the comfort of your home. It’s not a hard sell, not if you’ve the talent to entertain, and the fact that even the Symphony’s cautious security let folk get up and dance to a rousing ‘Red Hot Mama’ is something to be applauded.
Audience foot-tapping continues to the sounds of Motown during the interval and I’m reminded the late Cozy Powell recorded an album of such covers with Jeff Beck that’s never seen the light of day, before a synthesised purring draws forth, lights rise from the stage floor to form a conical shape and three figures drift onto the darkened stage taking up instruments to begin a prog-fusioned refrain. Meanwhile, another spotlight wanders lost across the back curtain before swooping down stage right as the guv’nor saunters out: jet black hair but all his own, dressed like a Mexican gunfighter with all the subtext that carries, the man that is Beck thrashes out backstreet hooligan chords Yardbirds style followed by a series of unholy notes then makes his guitar vomit just like he did back in 1968 for the Led Zeppelin blueprint that was his Truth album. This then is ‘Loaded’ and the way it’s going to be tonight.
Changing Stratocaster’s with the very next number, the band comprising Rhonda Smith on bass, Jonathan Joseph on drums and guitarist Nicolas Meier, remain static but play out a funkier beat while Beck himself walks about, fidgeting and trying to get an aural feel for things rather than any intended stagecraft, while throwing in melodic sideways patterns; he will deconstruct Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ with a speedier intro and more jazz chording and trills applied before merging into the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s ‘You Know, You Know’ a slow tonal tune for the more serious fusion follower out there; that it also features a long dribbling wah-wah bass solo by Smith comes too early in the set for many who’ve come to see a guitar hero. Later, from the same fusion family tree, a rousing cover of Billy Cobham’s ‘Stratus’ will receive a better reception.
The pace picks up with ‘Hammerhead’ as Beck gets into his groove, his guitar playing not simply lyrical but having a two sided argument with itself, yelling and jibber-jabbering away with no indication of six string laryngitis in sight. Beck himself is becoming more animated; not racing either side of the stage like he did in 50s but his feet are tapping and he’s edging himself towards centre stage as the next batch of numbers ensue.
‘Angel (Footsteps)’ has him apply a bottleneck to create its tear-drenched noted melody, but then I notice something: the guitarist is taking chances, living and playing in the moment; watch him close and you see his head turn to his fretboard thinking as his right hand pulls back fleetingly hesitating or making an impromptu new decision to create a wholly new series of notes that flourish forth. Some call this improvising, with Beck you’re watching him compose for the moment. It does not always work, and often that’s what’s most important to be witness to; go listen to the records if you want perfection.
As if it took him until this point to gain the self-confidence to actually speak to the audience he offers a brief “You alright?” into a microphone, followed by a garbled sentence or two. Audience interaction will be minimal all night and it can disengage people who may be unfamiliar with the songs.
‘Yemin’ features Beck and Meier, on acoustic, trading formidable licks back and forth before Beck mockingly sends him back in his corner and solos with two hands tapping and some whammy bar wrangling. Later, the plaintively questioning ‘Where Were You’ builds as he seemingly gently caresses lightning, making it bow and weep to his touch. ‘Egyptian’ has a grunge textured Zeppelin beat with added heavy jazz notes inflected and whipped into shape. Centre stage he plays a clear and precise melody line to ‘Pork Pie Hat’ before digging into ‘Brush With The Blues’ as the guv’nor pulls out some earnest licks, as comfortable and confident he calls out changes to the band, his legs rise that little bit higher and his right hand begins to rise and pull back from the body of his Strat more extravagantly as if teasing himself over what notes he’ll play and then giving it an almost Townsend thrust as he layers a flurry of notes home.
The inebriate’s favourite ditty ‘Danny Boy’ takes me by surprise; a Hawaiian flavoured delicate bottleneck played intro subsides to a slow blues of unlikely melodic prepositions, statements and tonal expressions. When Smith sings ‘Why Give It Away’ you wish they’d added a few more vocal tunes, even brought Sanchez back on to sing some. As the riff to ‘Led Boots’ kicks off, the band back him solidly as Beck hits high note after note, twirling and twisting the strings wildly and his own body becoming wrapped up in the moment, Meier taking the synthesised solo well on his own guitar, then Beck moving decisively towards his foot pedal board and feedback rushes in as he raises his guitar away from him aloft, in a pose mimicked by millions over the years. With the next batch of numbers he’s on a roll bending and sliding notes lyrically before whipping his six string with his guitar lead, pulling out lines, licks and phrases of sheer ferocity as he roams about soaking in the sound he may well have been searching for all night. The Beatles’ ‘Day in The Life’ begins distortedly, Beck’s guitar volume swells and the band pull in tight about him, funking it up, as he in turn offers some sheer metal deliverance before it emerges in lullaby mode with inventive flourishes around the main theme, then as the main event reaches its conclusion he raises his guitar, removing it to face him as waves of the squealing feedback rip forth.
Rockabilly tussles with rock ’n’ roll as the encores begin, before Beck pulls out his bottleneck to make his guitar sound like a wailing cat that’s about to give chase as Smith sings “Woah-whoah” and the band sweep in for a dirty Chicago styled ‘Rollin’ And Tumblin’. Thereafter, tonight’s final number is a clear, linear, jazz screened delivery with sustained control and roaring high notes of the bitter sweet ‘Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers’, and that for me, kind of says it all.
3. Little Wing
4. You Know, You Know
6. Angel (Footsteps)
9. Where Were You
11. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat
12. Brush with the Blues
13. You Never Know
14. Danny Boy
15. Why Give It Away
16. Led Boots
18. Big Block
19. A Day In The Life
20. Rollin’ And Tumblin’
21. Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers