Jeff Beck can do whatever he wants, career-wise. For now, he wants to honor one of his guitar-hero elders. At the sold-out 9:30 Club on Thursday, Beck launched what he called his “guitar fantasy”: a tour-length homage to Les Paul, the quick-picking musician and peerless inventor of electronic gadgetry that rockers have always depended on.
Beck told the crowd that Paul, who died in 2009, was the guy who “gave birth to rock-and-roll.”
“If nothing else, for the slap echo,” explained Beck, 66, citing but one of Paul’s timeless brainchildren.
To accentuate Paul’s engineering contributions, Beck then kicked off a heavily reverberated rendition of “How High the Moon.” On that tune, and for most of the approximately 90-minute set, Irish-born vocalist Imelda May used multitrack recording technology to sing the parts sung by Paul’s longtime musical partner and paramour, Mary Ford. May’s wonderful band filled in all the rest.
Beck sported a heavy Gibson jazz box as he and May took things slow and torchy on a pair of Paul/Ford standards, “Vaya con Dios” and “Mockingbird Hill.”
Though the inspiration for the evening and the tour that commenced on this night was Paul, Beck seemed even more energized when he plucked products associated with Paul’s rival for rock-guitar-building supremacy, Leo Fender. Beck’s chops are such that if given time, he probably could make any sound come out of any stringed instrument. But in a live setting, his precision playing is better suited to the trebly single-coil pickups found on Fender axes than the bass-heavy humbuckers favored by Paul for his Gibsons.
Beck, for example, strapped on a Telecaster and told the crowd that he was going to perform a tune covered by the Yardbirds, then banged out a few distorted bars of the opening riff of “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” sounding just as dirty as his old band did when it played it. But it was all a tease. After yelling, “Not that way!” Beck transformed the song into a quick-picking, clean-channel exercise set to a rockabilly beat.
He plugged in a Stratocaster for several vintage instrumentals, including the theme from “Peter Gunn,” during which Beck stomped on effects boxes to make wacky sounds Paul surely would have appreciated and swept his guitar toward the crowd machine-gun style, a rock-star move only Beck and a few other iconic ax-handlers can pull off cheeselessly.
He also played the Shadows’ 1960 “Apache” and “Sleepwalk,” Santo & Johnny’s much-covered slice of rock melancholia. While Beck’s guitar gently weeped, the fans swooned.
McKenna is a freelance writer.