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.