Monday, May 2, 2011

Music review: Guitar master Beck's SunFest set fights sound problems

Jeff Beck at SunFest, on Sunday.
(Photo by Chris Salata/SunFest)




By Bill Meredith


Set to turn‭ ‬67‭ ‬next month,‭ ‬Jeff Beck is one of three famed British lead guitarists who played with‭ ‬1960s pop/rock group the Yardbirds,‭ ‬the others being Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.

And each followed that stint by diving into heavy blues-rock:‭ ‬Clapton with Cream‭; ‬Page with Led Zeppelin,‭ ‬and Beck with his self-titled group.

But while Clapton left Cream to pursue simpler pop material as a solo artist,‭ ‬and Page ventured further into rhythmic complexity with Zeppelin,‭ ‬it was still Beck who went the furthest outside the box.‭ ‬His‭ ‬1975‭ ‬instrumental jazz/fusion gem‭ ‬Blow By Blow,‭ ‬produced by former Beatles engineering guru George Martin,‭ ‬started a trend of unexpected career moves that continues‭ ‬36‭ ‬years later.

Yet Beck played a surprisingly‭ ‬cover-heavy and nostalgic‭ ‬set on Sunday at the Tire Kingdom Stage of SunFest,‭ ‬avoiding material from his latest release,‭ ‬the progressive‭ ‬2010‭ ‬Grammy winner‭ ‬Emotion‭ & ‬Commotion.‭ ‬The muddy sound at the Meyer Ampitheatre seemed to rankle the guitarist,‭ ‬who concluded the proceedings after only‭ ‬75‭ ‬minutes.

Beck‭’‬s quartet included longtime keyboardist Jason Rebello,‭ ‬bassist/vocalist Rhonda Smith‭ (‬an alum of Prince's band‭) ‬and drummer/vocalist Narada Michael Walden.‭ ‬It was Walden who played on Beck's‭ ‬1976‭ ‬release‭ ‬Wired,‭ ‬the‭ ‬Blow By Blow‭ ‬follow-up that equaled its predecessor while adding muscle tone.‭ ‬The drummer‭’‬s shimmering intro to‭ ‬Led Boots,‭ ‬the opening track on‭ ‬Wired,‭ ‬led to an early highlight as its stops and starts got the capacity crowd involved.

While Beck‭’‬s artistic apex occurred in the‭ ‬1970s,‭ ‬he mined his sparse‭ ‬1980s catalog for some mid-set highlights.‭ ‬Smith sat‭ ‬out‭ ‬Where Were You,‭ ‬a ballad from the‭ ‬1989‭ ‬release‭ ‬Guitar Shop,‭ ‬which was recorded in a bass-free trio format by Beck,‭ ‬keyboardist Tony Hymas and drumming wiz Terry Bozzio.‭ ‬Walden stood to one side of his massive drum kit to play cymbals with mallets,‭ ‬accenting the lines of Beck and Rebello.

Smith took the spotlight during a solo on an electric upright‭ ‬bass,‭ ‬and donned her primary instrument as Beck introduced her to the crowd to continue in a slap-and-tap showcase.‭ ‬The quartet then downshifted into an instrumental version of Curtis Mayfield‭’‬s‭ ‬People Get Ready,‭ ‬which featured banner solos by both Rebello and Beck.‭ ‬The hit remake from the guitarist‭’‬s‭ ‬1985‭ ‬album‭ ‬Flash actually featured guest vocalist Rod Stewart,‭ ‬singer for the original Jeff Beck Group in the late‭ ‬1960s.

Beck is known for featuring outstanding female musicians in his bands.‭ ‬His late-1990s touring quartet included Jennifer Batten,‭ ‬a former Michael Jackson guitarist who pushed both bandleaders to greater heights.‭ ‬And youthful Australian bass prodigy Tal Wilkendeld preceded Smith‭ ‬--‭ ‬whose thumping intro to the funky‭ ‬You Never Know‭ (‬from Beck‭’‬s‭ ‬1980‭ ‬recording‭ ‬There‭ & ‬Back‭) ‬led to heated guitar-and-keyboard trades,‭ ‬plus flurries from Walden that were unfortunately washed out within the blanketed sound.‭ ‬The drummer‭’‬s thunderous tones from‭ ‬Wired,‭ ‬and the Mahavishnu Orchestra‭’‬s‭ ‬1975‭ ‬album‭ ‬Visions of the Emerald Beyond,‭ ‬were stunted here.

On Muddy Waters‭’‬ blues standard‭ ‬Rollin‭’‬ and Tumblin‭’‬,‭ ‬Smith sang lead,‭ ‬delivering a growling,‭ ‬overwrought vocal that the audience nevertheless ate up.‭ ‬Jimi Hendrix‭’‬s‭ ‬Little Wing then featured Walden on lead vocal,‭ ‬but Beck stole the thunder.‭ ‬Clearly warming up,‭ ‬his unorthodox,‭ ‬finger-picked soloing echoed not only Hendrix,‭ ‬but other mentors from Les Paul to Roy Buchanan.

Yet that was the point where something else happened to annoy Beck.‭ ‬At‭ ‬7:45‭ ‬p.m.,‭ ‬he could clearly hear Earth,‭ ‬Wind‭ & ‬Fire start up at the Bank of America Stage to the north,‭ ‬which was as overly loud as the Tire Kingdom Stage was muffled.

‭“‬I hope we don‭’‬t get drowned out here,‭”‬ Beck said before launching‭ ‬into‭ ‬Blue Wind,‭ ‬another track from‭ ‬Wired.‭ ‬Rebello played inspired solos that echoed the original album playing of Jan Hammer,‭ ‬holding his own in a point-counterpoint session with the iconic guitarist.

All of which led to the set-closing Beatles cover‭ ‬A Day in the Life,‭ ‬which was one of the high points in Beck‭’‬s career-resurgent‭ ‬2008‭ ‬DVD‭ ‬Performing This Week....Live at Ronnie Scott‭’‬s‭ (‬with Rebello,‭ ‬Wilkenfeld and yet another great drummer,‭ ‬Vinnie Colaiuta‭)‬.‭ ‬As the dynamics of Rebello,‭ ‬Smith and Walden ebbed and flowed,‭ ‬Beck mimicked the original vocal melody with otherworldly touch,‭ ‬feel and precision.

The encore was an anticlimactic cover of Sly‭ & ‬the Family Stone‭’‬s‭ ‬I Want To Take You Higher,‭ ‬sung by Walden and Smith.‭ ‬Rebello again provided fiery soloing,‭ ‬but Beck looked like he couldn‭’‬t wait to get off‭ ‬the stage from the moment he appeared to play the unaccompanied opening riff.

SunFest‭’‬s southernmost FPL Stage faces north,‭ ‬and backs up against Okeechobee Boulevard,‭ ‬far away from the other two stages.‭ ‬The Tire Kingdom Stage at the Meyer Ampitheatre also faces north,‭ ‬and is an immobile concrete structure between Datura and Evernia streets.‭ ‬Yet the Bank of America Stage actually faces south on Clematis Street,‭ ‬less than three blocks away from the Meyer.

Beck is known for the emotion in his playing,‭ ‬but commotion like this can also bring it out through his temper.‭ ‬Perhaps it‭’‬s time to aim the mobile northernmost stage in a different direction,‭ ‬or at least pump down the volume,‭ ‬so that he might come back when he can stay longer.‭ ‬The multi-Grammy‭ ‬winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee deserved better,‭ ‬and so did his audience.

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