Jeff Beck: Never taking the easy or expected road

Jeff Beck. Okay? Jeff Beck.
By JC Costa

Emotion and Commotion
Jeff Beck
Atco/Rhino Records

Performing This Week…Live at Ronnie Scott’s
Jeff Beck
Eagle Records

Ostensibly a review of Jeff Beck’s new studio album, Emotion & Commotion (Atco/Rhino), this also includes a brief look back at Jeff Beck performing this week…Live at Ronnie Scott's (Eagle Records) recorded in 2007 for some additional context in discussing this uncompromising original who has continually redefined the electric guitar on every level.

And Beck, despite true guitar legend status based on trailblazing sonic inventions first forged with the Tridents and Yardbirds in the early to middle ‘60s––who can forget the brief but iconic scene from Antonioni’s Blowup with Beck and Jimmy Page fronting the Yardbirds as they blast through “Train Kept A Rollin’” (“Stroll On,” as it’s titled in the credits)––only to refine his incarnate mastery of the instrument with The Jeff Beck Group, Beck, Bogert and Appice and a series of other instrumental combos in the musical vanguard of ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

The Yardbirds, with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, ‘Stroll On,’ from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, 1966

Unlike his fellow guitarists in the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Beck has always followed an idiosyncratic arc in his musical career where the guitar was the featured element instead of vocals, with the notable exception of Rod Stewart, the raspy-voiced Scot with the Rooster hairdo first propelled to stardom by the Jeff Beck Group who inevitably left to pursue his own renown with the Faces and as a solo artist.

Besides two exceptional albums and one and a half intermittently inspired tours of the U.S. before the enterprise went off the rails, The Jeff Beck Group is largely credited as the blueprint Page stole to create the more successful Led Zeppelin, with an admittedly superior rhythm section consisting of John Bonham and John Paul Jones.

But that’s Beck, never the easy or expected road, something immediately apparent on Emotion & Commotion, an almost languid and spectral showcase for his Stratocaster as a purely vocal instrument alongside a full orchestra, blues and R&B singer Joss Stone, the seductive swing stylist Imelda May and opera singer Olivia Safe.

With a minimum of power guitar pyrotechnics, excepting “Hammerhead,” “There’s No Other Me” and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ ominous classic “I Put A Spell On You,” Beck uses his guitar as a vehicle of pure melody, shorn of typical chorus, flanging and phase effects, yawing distortion or lightning quick multi-note flurries. It’s almost as if he’s making a show of slowing it down so we can really listen in on what truly moves him about the vocalists and music that have inspired him over the years.

The Jeff Beck, ‘Let Me Love,’ from the band’s debut album, Truth

Consider the opener, a spare and evocative reiteration of Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol,” also recorded by singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, which Beck credits as his inspiration. No frills, no trills, just a sensitive reading of the melody with absolute restrain and full-on emotional focus.

But just in case we get lulled into a false sense of somnolence, Jeff follows with the grinding power Wah-Wah intro into “Hammerhead,” which quickly explodes into a massive dual/triple riff with his Stratocaster soaring far and wide beyond the heavy groove provided by bassist Tal Wilkenfeld, drummer Alessia Mattalia and keyboardist Jason Rebello. As the track redoubles in intensity and the harmonies get thicker and more convoluted, Beck pushes the Stratocaster beyond the limits of absolute sonic chaos without ever losing control, the hallmark of a style that continues to inspire anyone who plays electric guitar.

And that’s the way it goes. Just like Beck’s career, we never get what we expect, or expect what we end up getting. “Never Alone,” which features his incomparable touring band with Vinnie Colauita on drums and the prodigiously gifted Wilkenfeld on bass, sounds almost stately and measured, yet is marked throughout with a powerful and beautiful melody line that soars through various shifting orchestral movements until it seemingly evanesces into thin air.

Jeff Beck performs ‘Over the Rainbow’ at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, April 16, 2010: ‘Beck effortlessly recreates the shimmering beauty of Judy Garland’s original vocal with a subtle combination of fingering, volume swells, harmonics, and vibrato bends commenting on each phrase…’

Very few guitarist would have the balls to record an instrumental version of Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg’s “Over The Rainbow,” but Beck effortlessly recreates the shimmering beauty of Judy Garland’s original vocal with a subtle combination of fingering, volume swells, harmonics, and vibrato bends commenting on each phrase, perfectly in tandem with Pete Murray’s lush orchestral arrangement.

The three tracks with vocalists are not so much duets as nuanced and highly empathetic musical conversations, like the incomparable exchange with Ms. Wilkenfeld (only 24, the Australian born prodigy has a melodic command of the electric bass most can only dream of) on “’Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” from the live sessions at Ronnie Scott’s.

"I Put A Spell On You" takes Joss Stone’s somewhat mannered and obvious vocals to a higher ground with guitar commentary that simultaneously rips the track to shreds while pushing it along.

On “There’s No Other Me,” Beck and Stone up the ante with funky rhythmic interplay between an inspired vocal by Stone and Beck pushing and pulling his guitar to the edges of the song up to a power chorus where vocal and guitar explode all over the track. Throughout, Vinnie Colaiuta’s drumming is brilliant and relentless, as always.

James Shelton’s “Lilac Wind” brings us the sultry and timeless Imelda May, also featured on Beck’s note-perfect interpretation of “How High the Moon,” his tribute to Les Paul on the Grammy Awards, one of the evening’s highlights. Her vocal is thoughtful, sexy and restrained, much as she seems to be, embellished with Beck’s knowing guitar asides and subtle melodic flourishes.

Beck also crosses melodic paths in the stratospheric regions of the upper register with opera singer Olivia Safe on Dario Marianelli’s “Elegy for Dunkirk” from the film Atonement, the album closer. Here, his instrumental sounds like a violin with amplified with the unlimited sonic palette that controlled electricity can provide.

Like too many of Beck’s studio albums, Emotion & Commotion will probably appeal only to a limited number of what my wife calls “guitar nerds,” which is unfortunate because it shows how lyrical and melodic the electric guitar can be when played by a musician and not a fretboard gymnast more concerned with showing off his or her “chops” instead of making music.

And now an after note about live at Ronnie Scott’s because Beck at his best in a live setting with equally gifted musicians behind him is when the guitarist, as they say in the trade, truly “talks to God.” There is literally no better electric guitar improviser on the planet.

Recorded three years ago in the small but intimate London venue which bills itself as the “world’s oldest jazz club,” this album tells us why Jeff Beck is idolized by musicians and singers the world over. Look at the audience on the DVD and you can see Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and others nodding knowingly as Beck takes the Strat to the ends of the earth on a stage small enough to fit in your living room.

The sound quality is truly exceptional for a live recording, Colaiuta, Wilkenfeld and Rebello are top notch, and Jeff has never sounded so mature and focused, explosive, unpredictable and inspired at the same time.

Well rehearsed and prepared for this recording, Beck actually went into training for this project. As he told Guitar Player’s Art Thompson in a recent cover story interview, in response to a question about the pressure of playing in such an intimate setting in front of industry heavyweights: "Slightly, especially when you've got a couple of really beautiful Asian girls looking up your nose and their drinks are an inch away from your feet. [Laughs] It's a pretty compact little place, and I didn't eat for four days during that––literally not a thing. I get closer to who I am when I'm not eating. Food is distancing for me. You've got to be starving and really miserable, and then you play well."

First a stirring version “Beck’s Bolero” kicks off the evening with Jeff soaring in and around the classic melody line (written by Jimmy Page) with washes of electronic texture wrung from his guitar as he segues into the Yardbirds sounding heavy riff middle section and then soars up to upper register solos that eventually resolve in a crescendo of sound.

Jeff Beck performs Stevie Wonder’s ‘Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers’ at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, April 16, 2010

Moving at hyper-speed through complex and showy versions of John McLaughlin’s “Eternity’s Breath” and Billy Cobham’s “Stratus,” which features a wicked groove from Wilkenfeld locked into the propulsive and imaginative drumming of Colauita, we move to the previously mentioned showcase between Beck and Wilkenfeld on Stevie Wonder’s “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers.” And as if the breathtaking musicianship wasn’t enough, the video clearly shows Beck’s amazement, appreciation and generosity as the young bassist moves fluidly through her extraordinary solo.

Other high points include a brilliant montage of Mingus’ "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat/Brush With The Blues," which morphs into a soulful blues where Beck uses his thumb and finger technique playing off the vibrator bar to conjure up oddball flourishes and riff extensions only he could come up with. Constantly reinventing the sonic context of his playing as if the guitar was literally a plasticene material he can seamlessly reshape at will.

"Space Boogie" and "Big Block" give true guitar technique aficionados (see: nerds) all of the high speed ensemble riffing and solo flourishes they could possibly want, while "A Day In The Life" bring the Lennon/McCartney classic to life in an entirely new electronic way, another tour de force few other players would even attempt.

When all is said and done, Jeff Beck may not have the same long-term legacy associated with Clapton, Page and Hendrix, but anyone who plays guitar stands in awe of his talent and vision. Unlike all others, the guitar is in him.

Jeff Beck’s Emotion and Commotion is available at

Jeff Beck’s Performing Live…At Ronnie Scott’s is available at

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