beck in the bluegrass

jeff beck. photo by robert essel.

jeff beck. photo by robert essel.

For the past four decades, Jeff Beck has led something of a divided professional existence.

To many, he is the pioneering guitarist that has forged wildly original voices as an instrumentalist in fields of rock, swing, fusion and funk. To others, he is a rock ‘n’ roll hermit, an artist that emerges from seclusion to test the musical waters about him. He tours, records and then disappears again – sometimes for years at a time.

But for this double member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (he was inducted as a member of The Yardbirds in 1992 and again as a solo artist in 2009), both personas work hand in hand. If he vanishes from public view, it’s only to work on a new sound, style or concept to keep his more visible performance persona vital.

“I like to think I am always evolving as a guitarist and pushing and challenging myself in everything I do,” said Beck, who performs in Kentucky for the first time in nearly a decade with a Louisville Palace concert on Tuesday.

“If all my music was in the same style and format, it wouldn’t keep people guessing as to what I am going to do next. I take time off because I want to feel excited about the music I am making. And right now I am very excited.”

Judging by the fruitfulness of his career over the past year, Beck has every right to be excited. There has been the release of Emotion & Commotion (his first album of new music since 2003), a guest shot on Herbie Hancock’s all-star summit The Imagine Project, a concert recording that spotlights his current touring band (Live and Exclusive from the Grammy Museum) and a jubilant tribute performance with Irish singer Imelda May and her band to guitar pal and innovator Les Paul which yielded yet another album (Rock ‘N’ Roll Party).

There was also the no-small-matter of Beck’s triple win at this year’s Grammy Awards. He won two trophies for Emotion & Commotion and a third for the Hancock project.

Taking precedence this spring, though, has been a tour with May’s band supporting Rock ‘N’ Party. The trek was a major departure for Beck, as it was built around music popularized during the ‘40s and ‘50s by Paul.

“This tour was very different from anything I normally do, as I wasn’t playing with my own band,” Beck said. “So I was a bit apprehensive before it started

 “The main thing I wanted to achieve was to get the power, genius and the simplicity of Les’ music, and the music of that era, across to the audience. I think we managed to do that and put a smile on people’s faces.”

Beck has long been vocal in citing Paul (who died at age 94 in 2009) as an influence and friend. But what did the guitar giant, in turn, think of Beck’s music?

“Les definitely made me sweat when I played in front of him,” Beck said. “The first time Les watched me play, I was doing a gig at Avery Fisher Hall in New York with (fellow guitar star) John McLaughlin. Someone told me Les was in the audience, but I wasn’t sure he would stick around to see me as I was playing after John. To my surprise, he was standing in the wings when I came off stage.

“He told me that we were good and to carry on with what we were doing. Then he left. Les used to tease me about playing a Fender constantly, but that was purely because he was a Gibson man.”

Beck’s Louisville concert will put the focus back on his own band and the music from Emotion & Commotion – a recording that mixed orchestral collaborations (a fittingly grand treatment of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma), pop classics (an elegiac guitar treatment of Over the Rainbow), ferocious rock works (Hammerhead) and tunes that enlisted the talents of three stylistically different vocalists (May, British soul belter Joss Stone and the young opera stylist Olivia Safe).

“Some might say Emotion & Commotion was a risky album as it is different to what I normally do,” Beck said. “It was also my first studio album in seven years. But it has paid off. I always wanted to make an album with a full orchestra, a classical album with a twist, and I think I managed to get that across.”

The tour that brings Beck back to Kentucky strikes a somewhat unexpected balance of the old and new. While the repertoire will spotlight Emotion & Commotion songs, his band will include a longtime studio ally, drummer/producer Narada Michael Walden. Though Walden was a key player on such jazz fusion-based Beck albums as 1976’s Wired, he was never part of the guitarist’s touring band until last year.

“When I first called Narada in 2009, he told me he had been waiting for the call (to tour) for 30 years. He is a powerhouse with the most incredible energy on and offstage.”

Does such a fruitful recording and performance year mean that Beck is about to go into hiding again? The guitarist isn’t saying, mostly because he doesn’t chart his career beyond making room for the artistic opportunities that come his way.

“I don’t think anyone can envision what is going to happen in the future. But you can hope for certain things. I still can’t believe some of the successes and opportunities life has given me. And for that, I am very grateful – especially since I never followed certain paths in my career and didn’t conform to the musician people wanted me to be.”

Jeff Beck with Tyler Bryant perform at 7:30 p.m. April 26 at the Louisville Palace, 625 S. 4th St. in Louisville. Tickets are $29.50-$65. Call (800) 745-3000, (502) 583-4555.

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