in performance: jeff beck

jeff beck. photo by robert essell.

jeff beck. photo by robert essell.

What grabbed you first? The spectacular, though often thundering guitar tone? The mix of unassuming technique and giddy instinct? A performance attitude that was as vigorous and youthful as his appearance (which continually flew in the face of his actual age – 66)? Maybe it was the killer band that followed the guitar kingpin into fusion, funk, blues, gloriously rockish racket and even divine balladry. Or it could have been the repertoire, which, aside from his own exemplary material, covered works written or popularized by Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Curtis Mayfield, Tim Buckley, Muddy Waters, Les Paul, Sly and the Family Stone, jazz drummer Billy Cobham and, perhaps most improbably, Puccini.

Pick your poison. That’s essentially what Jeff Beck did last night with a dazzling performance at a packed Louisville Palace. The 90 minute show was continually fueled by a playful stage persona and a band that tirelessly followed the guitarist into whatever stylistic extremes that pleased him.

The predominantly instrumental performance opened with the overlooked 2003 Beck original Plan B and the Cobham fusion relic Stratus. Both tunes set the performance’s course with music than was jazz-like in intent but decidedly rockish in execution.

Next up was Beck’s brilliant guitar tone, which, with help from various jabs at the whammy bar, possessed a wonderfully elastic lyricism. By the time Beck worked his way into Buckley’s Corpus Christi Carol and an especially wistful take on Over the Rainbow, his playing reflected the high, fluid and very emotive curve of a musical saw.

And then there were the times when Beck simply roared. The fusion blast of Led Boots, the turbo-charged blues of Rollin’ and Tumblin’ and the meaty ensemble grind of Big Block matched a more volcanic and animated band sound highlighted by Narada Michael Walden’s unflinching work on drums. Song for song, Walden’s managed to match Beck’s performance tenacity. It was a joy watching him play.

One could quibble with the set list a little. It was great to hear Blue Wind back in the repertoire, complete with darting keyboard runs by Jason Rebello that brought to mind the music Beck (and Walden) cut with Jan Hammer 35 years ago. Sadly, the landmark 1975 album Blow by Blow was ignored completely.

But what delights were offered in its place, including encore covers of the Paul hit How High the Moon (with its delirious, swing-savvy guitar chatter) and Puccini’s Nessun Dorma (augmented with clean orchestral drama by Rebello).

Wrap it all together and you had music steeped in a rock ‘n’ roll fountain of youth, one that seemed to fuel Beck’s inexhaustibly playful gusto. Sure, he proved himself a guitar hero in the truest sense of the term last night. But the Beck onstage in Louisville, backed by a performance driven with the pace and might of a freight train, was also a young-at-heart disciple of guitar music still serving a rock ‘n’ roll muse both restless and jubilant.

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