50 Years of Jeff Beck
August 10, 2016
Review by Shawn Perry
How do you celebrate 50 years as one of the world’s most revered guitarists? If you’re Jeff Beck, you make a new, edgy record, put out a stylish coffee table book, and invite a few friends over to the Hollywood Bowl for a career retrospective. I was only too happy to attend and be a part of it.
After all, I’ve been an avid Jeff Beck fan since the 70s. My first show was at the Greek Theatre here in Los Angeles sometime in 1980, behind the There & Back album. After that, I recall the ARMS concert in 1985, an opening slot for Santana in the early 90s, a memorable headlining gig in San Diego in 1999. Since then, there have been three more sightings — one in Anaheim with Keith Emerson sitting at the next table, one in LA when Dweezil Zappa opened, and one in Vegas with ZZ Top.
What I’ve learned from the shows I’ve seen, the videos I’ve reviewed, and the vast catalog of music is one thing: Jeff Beck is the undisputed champion of the electric guitar. Even Hendrix was still around, then perhaps Beck's reign would be threatened. As it is, he's still here, spinning new yarn, challenging himself, working with different musicians, and tinkering with his fleet of hot rods.
At the Hollywood Bowl, Jeff Beck’s half-century as a guitar master received a thorough overview with a varied setlist that covered pretty much every important piece of the puzzle. Maybe a shot of Beck, Bogart & Appice, or something more from one of his records of the last 20 years, would have made for a more complete picture. But with only an hour and 45 minutes, Beck had to make the most of his time. That meant lots of favorites from the 60s and 70s, collaborations with A-listers, and a small sampling of what he’s doing now.
Opener Buddy Guy was the perfect foil to stir up the Bowl. The blues legend, who just turned 80, was backed by the Damn Right Blues Band featuring guitarist Ric ‘JazGuitar’ Hall, drummer, bassist Orlando Wright, and keyboardist Marty Sammons, for a meandering blues-soaked three-song set. In between songs, Guy randomly played, told stories and dropped F-bombs here and there, especially when someone from the audience would chime in.
“No one in Tokyo fucked up this song,” Guy remarked as he paid tribute to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Jimi Hendrix ala “Hoochie Coochie Man.” As his 40-minute set (including a casual stroll through the Bowl’s aisle ways) came to an end, Guy promised he’d be back, and indeed, he along with many others, would join Jeff Beck on stage.
To get things underway, Beck handed the reins to Rosie Bones, the singer and co-conspirator on the guitarist’s 2016 release, Loud Hailer. She brazenly walked out on the runway that separates the pool circle from the rest of the Bowl’s seating areas. Brandishing a megaphone, she introduced an unsuspecting audience to the album’s opening salvo, “The Revolution Will Be Televised.” Not exactly a celebratory hymn, but when it comes to Jeff Beck, you have to expect a few left turns.
But then he and his band — guitarist Carmen Vandenberg, bassist Rhonda Smith and drummer Jonathan Joseph — took a step back in time to the days of the Yardbirds. He was joined by singer Jimmy Hall for quick and dirty blasts through “Over Under Sideways Down,” “Heart Full of Soul,” and “For Your Love.” The evening wouldn't have been properly covered without Beck's first instrumental, “Beck's Bolero,” a song credited to Jimmy Page and recorded in the studio with Page, Keith Moon, John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins. “Rice Pudding” was like a cherry on top.
“I stood here as a tourist in 1965,” Beck remarked in between numbers. And the history lesson continued as Hall returned to sing “Morning Dew” to cover the Jeff Beck Group years. After that, a succession of guest stars, most who share a history with the guitarist, came up for a number or two. There could be no better way to help punctuate Beck’s forays into instrumental fusion than to have keyboardist Jan Hammer there for five numbers. Those horns from “Freeway Jam” opened things up, and Beck and Hammer doubled up on the main riff like it was 1976 all over again.
The two covered a lot of fertile ground from the late 70s and early 80s — “You Never Know,” “Cause We've Ended As Lovers,” “Blue Wind” and “Star Cycle,” and, for my money, could have added a half-dozen more from what I believe is the guitarist’s most innovative period. After Hammer stepped away, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Beck go into “Big Block” from the one and only Guitar Shop album he did with Terry Bozzio and Tony Hymas.
Beth Hart, a frequent accompanist, came out to sing Etta James’ “I'd Rather Go Blind” and blew the Bowl away with her intense and powerful pipes. Of course, Beck’s wiry solo added a raw and heavy edge to an otherwise low-key song. Hart promised to be back before handing off the baton to Buddy Guy. He returned to match polka dot shirts and licks with Beck on a playful “Let Me Love You Baby.” When it came to soloing, Beck and Guy went head-to-head for one of the night’s most memorable jam-offs.
Bones came back to perform more songs from Loud Hailer, an album she, Vandenberg and Beck put together. Both “Live In The Dark” and “Scared For The Children,” which Bones sang mostly while crouched down or on her knees (imagine what the people in the nosebleeds were thinking), were well received. Which just goes to show that even after 50 years, Beck can still pluck it out within a contemporary setting and stay on topic.
Another surprise guest aside from Jan Hammer was ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, who joined Beck for “Rough Boy” and “Company Store (16 Tons),” with its all-too-brief “Ain’t Superstitious” tease. At the breaks, even Gibbons had to take a step back and marvel at Beck’s ability to squeeze the most out of his axe. At this point, the only obvious direction was to jump back to the Yardbirds. And that’s where Steven Tyler popped in.
I already figured they’d do “Train Kept A Rollin’” because both the Yardbirds and Aerosmith covered it. Beck played the train whistle, Tyler walked out and the crowd lit up and cheered louder than they had the whole night. It wavered between the Yardbirds and Aerosmith versions. “Shapes Of Things” was a little tighter, and it definitely had Tyler reaching beyond his range.
Beck closed the main set with what has become a signature sign-off, the Beatles’ "A Day In The Life.” To this day, it remains my favorite Fab Four cover, and though I’ve heard more expressive, dramatic renditions by Beck, it never wears thin. That made the encore far more palatable as Tyler, Bones and Hart came up for a spirited run-through of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Hart did most of the singing, while Tyler worked in a yelp or two. It must have been especially poignant for Rhonda Smith, who played with the Purple One for a number of years.
This show at the Hollywood Bowl was a different kind of Jeff Beck concert. Usually, it’s Beck and whoever is part of his band, venturing out on deep journeys, harvesting the melodies and passages in wild abandon. Tonight, it was all about a rich legacy that encompasses five decades of trends, tastes and constant refinement. It’s doubtful the rest of Beck’s tour with Buddy Guy will be as eventful. After a night like this, all you can do is pour a pint, put Blow By Blow on the player, and peruse a copy of Beck 01 to truly appreciate 50 years of Jeff Beck.