Sunday, June 27, 2010

Two Legendary Guitarists ... From Opposites Ends of the Spectrum

This month, I finally got a chance to see two renowned 1960’s era English guitarists in concert. Both shows were very impressive, and while there were some similarities – most notably respectful nods to the late guitar legend Les Paul – the differences were more noteworthy.

First up was Jeff Beck and his band at the Bank of America Pavilion on Boston Harbor on June 2. The 5,000 seat amphitheater generally has surprisingly good sound for such a venue and good sightlines. As expected, Beck put on a show of incredible guitar dexterity, coaxing impeccable tone out of his white Fender Strat. In general, the show was not as riff heavy as his albums of the last decade or so might suggest. And while there were some funky moments, he leaned more heavily on the tasteful mellow melodies of the kind featured prominently on his most recent release Emotion and Commotion (not among his better albums, but nevertheless including a few interesting moments).

“Brush with the Blues” from the 6/3/10 Boston show I attended.

Highlights of this Boston show included “Led Boots” from 1976’s landmark Wired l.p.; a funked up cover of blues standard “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” featured on Beck’s 200o CD, You Had It Coming); the sublime slow bluesy takes on the Celtic tune “Mna na h”Eireann” and “Angel (Footsteps),” from 1999’s Who Else?; the evening’s most hard rock moment, on the automobile ode “Big Block,” from 1989’s Guitar Shop; and a brief romp through Les Paul’s 1951 classic, “How High the Moon.”

I was disappointed by the rather anemic instrumental rendition of “People Get Ready” (historically one of my favorite Beck interpretations), as well as the slightly hurried and disjointed take on The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” which Beck has much more impressively executed on record in the past. Not that I really expected it, but it would’ve been nice to hear one nod to Beck’s early career, perhaps a Yardbirds tune or 1968’s “Beck’s Bolero,” which he has been playing in recent years. Alas, that was not to be.

Those complaints aside, Beck can make sounds on guitar unlike anyone else on the planet. His unorthodox fingerpicking, fretting and manipulations of the whammy bar, volume and tone controls are unparalleled. He can riff hard on a groove or make the guitar weep plaintively. What he doesn’t do so much, however, is play songs. Chords and rhythmic playing (aside from the funky riffs) are non-existent. Of course, he has a superlative rhythm section behind him in bassist Rhonda Smith and drummer Narada Michael Walden, and keyboardist Jason Rebello plays a key role, too. But you seldom find Beck rhythmically driving a song the way, for example, his fellow Yardies alums Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page do.

Nevertheless, you can’t help but be impressed – awed, in fact, especially if you’re a guitarist – by Beck’s playing.

That said, I was a little surprised to find myself even more impressed by the other guitar legend I saw this month: Albert Lee, the flashy country-picking Brit who appeared a few weeks later at the much more intimate Showcase Live club in Foxboro, Mass.

To be fair, the different venues created somewhat of an apples-to-oranges scenario between the two concerts. I was 25 yards or so from Beck in the big venue, while I was about 25 feet from Lee in the 500-capacity club. The relatively new club’s sound system is state of the art.

Lee is certainly not the guitar hero that Jeff Beck is, but in guitar-playing circles he’s highly reputed and has been since his days as a session player in the late ’60s. Since then, he has performed with the Everly Brothers, Emmylou Harris and Eric Clapton, among
others. The June 18 gig was his first show fronting a band in the United States in a couple of decades.

I came to hear Lee’s twangy country bends and lightning-quick chicken-picking. I was not disappointed (though he didn’t play a Fender Telecaster, as I had expected, instead invoking his twangy tones from a custom-made, whammy-bar outfitted, red Music Man guitar). What I did not expect, and was pleasantly impressed by, was his confident vocals (must’ve been all those years with the Everlys) and his adeptness on piano (which he played on about six songs). Most notable of all though, and the key point of distinction from Beck’s performance a few weeks earlier, was his focus on the songs – some of his own composition, but mostly covers.

Overall, the tunes were not as countryish as I anticipated. Yes, there was some country hoedowns (“Two-Step, Too,” “Travelin’ Prayer” and “Country Boy”), but also a fair amount of rockabilly (with the Everly Bros. influences never far from the surface) and some tasteful pop (Lee’s own “Song and Dance” and a powerful rendition of The Beatles’ “Oh Darling” ). At times it reminded me of the kind of set George Harrison might play – only with better guitar playing.

Other highlights included the Brian Setzer-esque “Barnyard Boogie,” which opened the second set, Ray Charles’ “Leave My Woman Alone,” which brought to mind Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s recent work together, and the previously referenced cover of Les Paul’s “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise.” (Side note: Both Beck and Lee followed up their Boston area gigs with guest appearances a few days later with the Les Paul’s backing band at New York’s Iridium club.)

This old clip offers a brief sampling of Albert Lee’s tasty, twangy chops.

Both guitarists sailed along buoyed by top notch-backing bands. Lee’s cast, dubbed Hogan’s Heroes after pedal steel guitarist Gerry Hogan, fleshed out the songs and added strong vocal support. The liquid twang of Hogan’s pedal steel ensured the country flare was never too distant and gave good chase to Lee’s fancy picking. Keyboardist Gavin Povey added alternately gospel and boogie-woogie embellishments, while drummer Peter Baron proved a formidable lead singer on several tunes.

In summary, June was a good month for guitar. And don’t get me wrong about the Jeff Beck concert, I enjoyed it very much. Perhaps, as a guitar player, I could simply better relate to Albert Lee’s playing. Not that my guitar chops are anywhere near Lee’s, but at least I can imagine (OK, fantasize about) myself playing some of those lines. Beck’s approach, on the other hand, is so other worldly that apart from his occasional forays into straight blues, I can’t even conceive of playing like that.

POSTSCRIPT: The Derek Trucks Band with Susan Tedeschi (Derek’s wife and a long-time formidable blues guitarist and singer in her own right) opened the show for Beck with a very impressive country-tinged blues set that conjured up strong echoes of Delaney and Bonnie circa 1970. I’ve long known about Derek’s stunning guitar abilities, particularly his Duane Allman-channeling slide playing, but I was so impressed with Tedeschi’s bluesy vocals that I half expected her to join Beck for his set, assuming some of the lead vocal parts done by Joss Stone and others on his recent records. That didn’t happen, but it would’ve been a good fit.


Jeff Beck at Bank of America Pavilion,
Boston (6/3/10)
Eternity’s Breath / Stratus
Led Boots
Corpus Christi Carol
Mna na h’Eireann
bass solo
People Get Ready
Rollin’ and Tumblin’
Never Alone
Big Block
Over the Rainbow
Blast from the East
Angel Footsteps
Dirty Mind
Brush with the Blues
I Wanna Take You Higher
A Day in the Life
How High the Moon
Nessun Dorma

Albert Lee & Hogan’s Heroes at Showcase Live,
Foxboro, Mass. (6/18/10)
Just Didn’t Understand *
Song and Dance
Travelin’ Prayer
Runaway Train
Glory Bound
I’ll Never Get Over You
The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise
Rad Gumbo
Barnyard Boogie
Two-Step, Too
I’m Coming Home
Luxury Liner
You’re Only Lonely
The Times We Share *
On the Verge
Let It Be Me
Oh Darling
Leave My Woman Alone
’Til I Gain Control Again
Country Boy
Skip Rope Song
Tear It Up

* Not sure of title

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