Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Surrey boy with the fringe on top: Jeff Beck at Le Grand Rex, Paris

Picture courtesy of Patrice Guino/Rockerparis
I've long been fascinated by the incredible coincidence that the county of Surrey in England could have produced three of the world's most influential guitarists - Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, all born within a year of each other at the tail-end of World War II, and growing up within a 20-minute bus ride of each other too.

What's more incredible is that all three of them, at some point, rotated through The Yardbirds, a band regarded by those who know their music as the true source of the Nile as far as rock is concerned.

The one other commonality is that all three of them are rarely at their most comfortable when confronted by the spotlight, even though they've made extraordinarily healthy careers in it.

Which may go to explain how the so-called 'Surrey Delta' (actually, a diagonal line that runs from Clapton's birthplace of Ripley north-west through Page's Epsom to Beck's Wallington) came to be formed.

The post-war years in Britain were an austere and challenging period in the nation's history.  Impoverished and almost broken from almost six years of global conflict, the country took a long time to get back on its feet. The British Empire may have been broadly intact following the outbreak of peace, but it wouldn't be long before bits of it started ebbing away.

The standards of decency, good manners and all that, which had sustained suburban England since Victorian times, were also on the cusp of being defied as final payments from ration books were being made, and rock and roll came along to inspire the nation's youth.

Post-war Surrey wouldn't have been much different from any other part of the country. Satellite towns like Woking, Farnham and Guildford had returned to dispatching the demobbed to dreary accountancy and insurance jobs in the City. Their offspring were left to playing on bomb sites, making do with childhoods of the make-your-entertainment kind.

It was understandable, then, that hearing Elvis Presley for the first time must have been like a third atomic bomb going off. The Beatles' eruption in 1962 would have had an emboldening effect, making it easy to understand how teenagers like Beck, Page and Clapton could see the electric guitar and the blues music of hot, steaming cotton fields thousands of miles away, to be both totemic and inspirational escape tunnels from their latently repressed environs.

Is that what inspired them? Is that what led to the incredible talent that manifested itself with Page becoming one of London's most sought-after session musicians while still in his teens, Clapton becoming a Surrey guitar god at 17 before leaving The Yardbirds, Beck replacing him before Page replacing him and eventually forming Led Zeppelin from the remains.

One shouldn't ignore, either, the role London's suburban art schools - Ealing (Pete Townshend), Dartford (Keith Richards), Kingston (Clapton), Sutton (Page) and Wimbledon (Beck) - played in giving these guitar heroes an outlet for their suburban, adolescent artistic interests as the storm gathered.

Roll on almost five decades, and Clapton is like a Tory grandee, still plying his trade via increasingly gentler blues, while Page has kept himself busy keeping the Zeppelin flame alive as the band's curator-in-chief.

And Beck? He has remained the most musically interesting of the trio. At the elegant Paris theatre Le Grand Rex he demonstrated this with breathtaking vigour, while reminding that for all his fretboard pyrotechnics, he's still something of an awkward Surrey schoolboy: "Bon-jour! Er...that's about it," he just about breathed into a microphone, immediately marking the turf that this wouldn't be a show in which the star engages in jovial banter. Yep, much like Clapton, whose stage dialogue rarely extends beyond "thank you" after songs.

Picture courtesy of Patrice Guino/Rockerparis
The point is that none of these three guitarists need to say anything. Horrendously corny as this statement might be, they really do let their guitars do the talking. In Beck's case, his white signature Stratocaster sings, in a multitude of multiple-personality voices.

He has, previously, said that he's happiest not letting daylight in on magic. Which is why you feel like you're watching a master magician at work. Like the magic show, there are few words spoken in a Jeff Beck show, but that doesn't mean it is any less engrossing.

The thing about Beck is that he is a genuine legend without a canon of hit singles or hit albums. The forgettable (and he would certainly like to forget it) Hi-Ho Silver Lining aside, Beck's catalogue is one of bewilderingly virtuoso instrumentals. And thus his live show resonates to the eclectic and the semi-obscure, a mixture of his own material and covers.

Not having the expectation of crowd-pleasing hits on his shoulders has allowed Beck to generate a live repertoire of purely his own indulgence. And for this tour (as others) he has a high-calibre band behind him, including former Prince alum Rhonda Smith on bass, Swiss-born, British-resident guitar prodigy Nicolas Meier (who supplies one of the evening's songs, Yemin) and the thunderously tight Jonathan Joseph on drums.

Beck is not afraid to avoid familiarity in the set list. Several tracks are new, from a forthcoming album, there are nods to recent releases like Hammerhead, from his last album of original material, Emotion & Commotion, and while older songs, like Jan Hammer's You Know You Know date back to the early 80s (and, to be frank, sound so), Billy Cobham's Stratus, and the Charlie Mingus-written Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (from Beck's George Martin-produced Wired album) from even further back.

While Clapton took the blues route, and Page adapted the blues to his own brand of sorcery, Beck has stretched the envelope of jazz and fusion, with occasional forays into rockabilly (one of his first loves), Memphis soul and blues-driven experimentation. All were delivered tonight.

For those in need of something familiar, there was one of the finest performances I've ever heard of my favourite Jimi Hendrix track, Little Wing, beginning with a shimmying 12-string wash from Meier, and then stretching out with Beck's mesmeric fretwork.

Picture courtesy of Patrice Guino/Rockerparis
Another stage favourite, The Beatles' A Day In The Life was delivered with crowd-pleasing aplomb, though purists might have preferred more of Beck's own material.

Similarly with the Delta blues standard Rollin' And Tumblin', for which French singer-songwriter Sophie Delila wiggled out on six-inch stilettos to provide some powerful lungwork to complement Beck's guitar playing.

As has been the tradition for many years, Beck ended with Cause We've Ended As Lovers, one of the two songs Stevie Wonder wrote for the Blow By Blow album. As an artist devoid of singalong encore hits, this is his epic finale, his Comfortably Numb or Stairway To Heaven, and like those two reference points, equally as sublime, Beck's fluid, lubricated guitar playing oozing through the piece with stunning resonance.

To return to their origins, I find myself frustrated that of the legendary Surrey-born band of brothers, Beck is too often the forgotten one. Clapton can be credited with keeping the blues in the mainstream, Page can be credited with keeping alive the legacy of the greatest rock band to have marauded the planet. But Beck can - if he cares, which I doubt he does - remain reassured that his virtuosity is untouched.

It's not often I would go so far to say such a thing, but this evening in his company was an experience of utter enjoyment and uncompromised satisfaction. Instrumental guitar playing may not be your thing and, to be honest, like the drum solo or, worse, the bass solo, not my thing either.  Beck, however, transcends any of that self-regarding nonsense.

Less than a month before his 70th birthday, the guitarist who clearly inspired Christopher Guest's Nigel Tufnell in This Is Spinal Tap is still one of the most ingenious, mesmerising and fascinating guitarists on Earth.

No comments:

Post a Comment