critic's pick 169

The Iridium is a basement jazz club in the heart of New York’s Times Square. Its confines are cozy and its walls are thin. Waiting for a late night set there by violinist Regina Carter in February, I could hear the serenades of the singing waiters in the diner one floor above.

Imagining a guitar star like Jeff Beck holding court there, much less filming and recording a performance, seems nigh to impossible. Why not choose one of New York’s more spacious locales, like Radio City Music Hall or the newly renovated Beacon Theatre?

The reason was simple. The Iridium was where Les Paul, the pioneering guitar stylist and designer who served as a mentoring influence on Beck and an entire generation of players, performed every Monday night until his August 2009 death at age 94.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Party Honoring Les Paul is a live document of Beck and a handful of pals crammed into the Iridium paying homage to Paul’s rock, pop and swing legacy. It is also a grand opportunity for Beck, who usually dabbles in harder rock, fusion and even industrial instrumental grinds, to step slightly out of character.

The light but furiously spirited inspiration of Paul is so pervasive on the album that if one were to listen to it blindfolded, Beck would likely not be the first player to be pegged as host of the party.

Backed by the band of Irish-born singer Imelda May (a key contributor to Beck’s Grammy winning 2010 comeback album Emotion & Commotion), Beck rips effortlessly through the rockabilly charge of Double Talkin’ Baby (with vocals by May’s guitarist husband Darrel Higham), a sleek and ultra cool Peter Gunn (pumped up by youthful brass from Trombone Shorty) and a hullabaloo-style New Orleans (led by the ageless party pop singing of a 71 year old Gary U.S. Bonds).

But at the top of the guest list is May herself, who ignites the torchy outlines of Cry Me a River, the studied country classicism of Vaya Con Dios and the brassy blues charge of Walking in the Sand. Beck goes wild on the latter with a solo that breaks free of Paul’s ordered guitar lyricism for a smoldering electric blues attack. But he more than matches Paul’s quick-witted picking on the signature 1951 hit How High the Moon, with May channeling the world class swing singing of Mary Ford.

If that wasn’t enough, we get instrumental blasts of Apache and Sleep Walk with Beck offering variations on Paul’s sound that are as respectful as they are inventive.

How these styles and spirits were so vividly caught co-existing on the modest Iridium stage is anyone’s guess. Only in New York, folks. Only in New York.

Jeff Beck performs at the Louisville Palace on April 26.

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