in performance: jeff beck

jeff beck. photo by ross halfin.

jeff beck. photo by ross halfin.

The first thing that astonishes you about watching Jeff Beck in performance is the sheer, physical zeal he exhibits. Throughout his 90 minute performance last night at the PNC Pavilion in Cincinnati, the veteran guitarist – who turns 66 today – dug into compositions ranging from rugged fusion and funk jams to pop covers to keenly orchestrated epics – with the exuberance of a kid that has just learned his first lick on the instrument.

Early on, during a monstrous version of Led Boots, Beck turned silent beats dictated by the tune’s crisp punctuation into room for call-and-response action with the audience. As a dressing for the thick, crunchy grooves of Big Block, he let his fingers fly with an alertness and articulation that would smoke a young Eddie Van Halen. And at the conclusion of the show closing Nessun Dorma, the guitarist fell to his knees James Brown-style, succumbing, briefly, to the composition’s dramatic crescendo.

Through it all, though, Beck beamed. Maybe it was because Narada Michael Walden, the fusion ace-turned-famed ‘80s pop producer, was in the drum chair. Despite a history with Beck that extends back nearly 35 years, this summer is the first time the two have toured together. Such an alliance was underscored by the beefy show-opening snippet of Eternity’s Breath, a tune that dates back to Walden’s mid ’70s days with the second Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Rhonda Smith dutifully handled funk heavy directives on bass (and vocals, for an anthemic take on the Muddy Waters’ staple Rollin’ and Tumblin’) while the band’s ace-in-the-hole, keyboardist Jason Rebello, proved a vital utility man, supplying subtle keyboard support to Women of Ireland, gospels turns during People Get Ready and soul-savvy support for the 2000 Beck original Dirty Mind.

Picking a highlight from Beck’s bag of giddy guitar fun was tough. Lullaby-like readings of Corpus Christi Carol and Somewhere Over the Rainbow as well as the deep pocket guitar funk (and the resulting fusion rolls) of You Never Know came close. But my vote goes to Beck’s Grammy winning instrumental interpretation of The Beatles’ A Day in the Life. It typlified the mix of regal guitar tone, whammy bar intensity and playful gusto that keeps this guitar elder sounding forever young.

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