Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
He didn’t say a word. He didn’t need to. Jeff Beck emerged from the wings of the Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island with all the confidence and swagger of a man who’d done this sh*t a thousand times before, which, of course, he had. More like 10,000 times if we’re being real? A white Stratocaster clattered against his denim blue vest and his arms were bare except for a single, silver, sequined sweatband that cuddled his right wrist. As he strode to the center of the stage where the spotlight waited, he threw on a pair of dark, black aviators and gazed out at the people waiting to hear him pluck out those first gorgeous notes on his guitar. Cool as a cucumber, ready for anything.
Beck was the headliner on this cool evening, just a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago, topping the Stars Align tour bill that included Heart frontwoman Ann Wilson, and Bad Company/Free frontman Paul Rodgers, both of whom are widely considered to be two of the most bombastic, purely gifted singers in the history of rock and roll. Beck is not a singer. In fact, during the hour-and-a-half he was onstage, he hardly said anything more into the microphone than a simple “Thank you.” What Jeff Beck is, however, is one of the most masterful electric guitar players in the history of the instrument itself. Your favorite guitarists’ favorite guitarist. A man whose raw talent defies rhyme, reason, genre, and explanation. A childhood friend of Jimmy Page, and a contemporary and friendly adversary of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.
While he can’t summon the same kind of hits as Wilson — “Barracuda,” “Crazy On You,” “Magic Man,” or Rodgers, “All Right Now,” “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love,” Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy” — he’s fostered a voracious cult following among six-string devotees that goes beyond worship. It’s not a coincidence that a majority of the t-shirts adorned by the 7,000 or so concert-goers that night featured his name and face, and it wasn’t even close. They weren’t here to hear specific songs, they were here to hear Jeff Beck, and he showed the hell up, stringing together a spell-binding array of sonically divergent compositions that bridged the gap between funk, soul, classical, rock, blues, jazz, and pop music. His take on “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” will break your f*cking heart.
Beck separated himself from Wilson and Rodgers in another way as well by largely spurning the classics from his immense back-catalog — it wouldn’t have killed him to throw “Beck’s Bolero” or “Heart Full Of Soul” into the mix, just saying — and opening his set by performing a newer song titled “Pull It” from his most recent album Loud Hailer. Using his thumb and index finger, never, ever a pick, Beck barked out a nasty series of perfectly syncopated notes from his Strat. He banged on the body to warp the sound roaring out of it. The palm of his hand rarely ever left his whammy bar, which he used constantly to modulate the different notes into a perfectly, warbly voice, totally unique to him and him alone. It was beautiful and ugly, and nasty, and angelic all at once.
Jeff Beck is something else as well. He’s an anachronism. The last of a dying breed of musicians we’ve long loved to deify: The mighty “Guitar God.” As rock cedes more and more cultural space to pop and hip-hop in the 21st century — the last time I saw Beck at a show in Portland in 2011 he busted out a bodacious rendering of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” which I certainly wouldn’t have minded hearing again — most of the breakout bands and artists that have willed their way into the public consciousness in the genre have done so either through emotive, thoughtful songwriting or colorful personalities. The days of virtuosic, 20-minute solos are largely over. Instrumental-only albums? Forget about it.
Beck himself refuses to accept this reality and has continued to push both the boundaries of his own abilities as well as his own personal tastes just like he has throughout his five-decade-long career, whether as the lead guitar player in the British invasion band the Yardbirds — he noted near the end of the show that “I’ve been coming here [to Chicago] since ’65,” when he and the rest of the group visited Chess Records and recorded a cover of Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man” — as the leader of his own band The Jeff Beck Group, which once counted Rod Stewart and future Rolling Stone, Ronnie Wood as members, or as session ace, working with everyone from Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Kate Bush, Diana Ross, Les Paul, Roger Waters, Morrissey, and so many others. It’s for this very reason that he’s one of the very, very few classic rock musicians who’s actually better today than he was in his “prime.”
I like singing — a seemingly obvious disclaimer, but an important one — but the best parts of Beck’s set were the moments when his current singer Jimmy Hall was chilling backstage; when Beck took on the role of “vocalist” using his guitar to fill in the lead melodies of different arrangements. Never was this more stunning than during his set-closing one-two punch of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” into The Beatles’ titanic “A Day In The Life.” The latter was especially enthralling, with Beck mimicking the immortal lines of John Lennon and Paul McCartney with his just his fingers. It was a staggering feat of sonic sorcery that only a handful of players in the world could pull off.
Maybe another kind of musician would’ve been eager and willing to collaborate with the other artists on the same bill, especially ones as earth-quackingly talented as those he’d aligned himself with on this occasion. I’m sure all of the fans gathered in the man-made amphitheater would’ve loved to watch Beck fire off a few solos while Wilson and Rodgers wailed away over “You Shook Me” or “Killing Floor” or maybe one of his old pal Jimmy Page’s hits like “Achilles Last Stand” or something, but that’s just not what he’s about. Jeff Beck remains a man alone. The last of his kind.