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There's a niche for Beck. You file him under "flash." Flash (as a musical term) was created for him. The two have riaen and faded together. Hendrix was never flash because he had a certain lyrical as well as musical genius. His genius aside. Clapton was too humble to be flash. Alice Cooper and Ian Anderson? Theatrics. David Bowie and Rod Stewart? Rock star trips. Steve Marriott? Punk arrogance, and Peter Townshend, for all his onstage pyrotechnics, has been sneaky serious ever since perfect placement of that primal teenage stutter on "My Generation."
First time I ever saw the word flash in a musical context was on the back of Beck's first solo album. Truth. Flash has little to do with taste or technique or attack or anything like that. It's the hazy ability to appear with the musically unexpected. It's also a lot to do with ego, which Beck has, in abundance. He once shut down the whole band, onstage, so he could play "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," solo. That's flash.
Beck's relative unexpectedness is his strongest point, musically, because it masks, as well as represents, the basic puzzle of his music. The most interesting thing about Beck is that, unlike the majority of English rock musicians, he cannot be comfortably traced back to any of the traditions commonly credited with English rock. he is not a blues guitarist, at least not in the Clapton tradition.
Following Eric Clapton as a Yardbird. Beck's ideas and influences marked a shift in musical direction away from blues. The Yardbirds had little success as a seminal English blues band. Beck brought them "For Your Love," and, once they settled under him, he was free to experiment. Listen to "Beck's Bolero." "Hot House of Omagarashid," or particularly to the opening bars of "Over Under Sideways Down." Yet, with songs like "Train Kept a Rollin" Beck remained true to a concept of British blues.
This is because Beck is not a real innovator, either. He is, however, a genius among those musicians who work in form-sound, minor electronics and the like. His technique and attack are unparalleled because his ideas come only out of a desire to wrench original sounds out of his instrument. Which in turn comes from his lucky combination of talent and barely-checked ego. Beck's out there because he likes to listen to himself play.
Still, there are two things you can hold him to. He has the English adolescent's fondness for American rhythm and blues. His most recent music stands on this as much as anything. "The Jeff Beck Group," his latest release, contains a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Gotta Have a Song," and a brilliant instrumental of Valerie Simpson's "I Can't Give Back the Love I Feel for You." Also, Beck journeyed to Detroit several years back to do some sessions with the Motown house band that've become an underground legend. Nothing from the seasions was ever released, but critical consensus is that the mating of slick Detroit soul and lower class English raunch was doomed from the start.
Beck's other consistent focus is two guys named Bogart and Appice. He's wanted to play with them since the collapse of their original band, Long Island's infamous Vanilla Fudge (for which they were bassist and drummer, respectively.) Beck, Bogart and Appice make for Beck's fifth new band since '68.
I for one have never been able to figure out why Bogart and Appice. If they were steeped in the Young Rascals--NYC lounge tradition, we could chalk it up to white soul, but they aren't. Maybe it's magic. Anyway, BBA is not the holding action Beck claims his two previous bands were. They are new to each other, though, and their Boston show Tuesday last opened with a vague feeling of indirection. The song was new, and, as a show opener, had a definite warm-up feeling to it, while making sure the audience recognized Beck's tendencies towards the music.
It's not going to be possible to dissect each of the songs in an attempt to understand Beck's guitar work. There was always too much going on. No matter what he's playing. Beck has the audience's complete attention; you have to watch him even when he's playing rhythm because of his unique approach even then. He picks the riffs to lead off each song, and he guides the whole band's attack. He is not interested in Hendrix's wall of sound, or Clapton's trio virtuosity. Again, Beck is primarily interested in hearing himself play. In fact, my theory is that he tends to surround himself with relative mediocrities just in order to emphasize his own talents. Bogart and Appice are perfect examples: Rod Stewart and Ron Wood were not. His songs are thus simplistic, riff-oriented, and written with spaces only Jeff can fill.
Within the framework of this unpredictability. Beck retains one or two stylistic focal points. He is one of the few well-known rock guitarists to rely consistently on the lower registers of his guitar. "Don't Want to be Alone" another original, opened with some lower register, bass string single picking, until he found a riff that pleased him. Beck also tends to work off one riff until he tires. A large, glissando chord took the band into Dylan's "Tonight I'll be Staying Here With You." Carmine Appice's vocal was strained a bit, but the guitar work brought the song off. Beck has learned to achieve a double-tracked guitar sound by working in the middle registers of his fretboard and adding some vibrato to the chords. This all makes for a much fuller sound, particularly when combined with his tendency to play thick notes that are held for an instant on the fretboard (which he learned from blues guitarists).
Beck is also one of the few guitarists outside the blues genre to work extensively with the slide. His slide work matches the best non-blues efforts of Duane Allman, the master of rock slide guitar. He combines it most often with echo or vibrate to fill out, and occasionally picks with the slide itself for a thin sound that adds variety.
A chord held with vibrate closed "Tonight" and opened "People Get Ready." An old Vanilla Fudge standby, Beck, Bogart and Appice blended their voices beautifully one time for an exquisite gospel version of the song (at least for rock shows). Beck varied volume and intensity to alter mood. I heard the best single lick of the evening during "People." Beck moved into a transitional chord, picked two bars acoustically at very low volume, boosted the volume, and came out in a single note run. In the space of one chord, maybe seven seconds.
I didn't miss Rod Stewart until "Morning Dew," in which Carmine Appice proved his voice was only ordinary. Again the guitar brought the song off. Beck's solo explored the variations on one lick, after exploring several angles of single notes to discover that lick. The vocals on "Plynth (Water Down the Drain)" were ordinary--the vocal harmonies much tastier than the vocal leads. Beck dropped a cello styled chord into the middle of a solo, and took the band into "Shotgun," his only in concert thank you to Motown. It was cursory, out of place and served primarily as an introduction to Tim Bogart's feedback-laden, extremely histrionic and essentially unnecessary bass solo.
"Let Me Love You" may've suffered a bit through looseness, but it certainly showed the closeness of the band. There was much tandem dancing and giggling through this one, along with the now mandatory singalong, significant as the first time I ever heard three thousand plus people singing falsetto "Let Me Love You."
Flash: "a healthy desire to have one's licks heard; the result of talent and massive ego." Beck, Bogart, and Appice played "Jeff's Boogie" for an encore last Tuesday at the Aquarius. In the middle, Jeff Beck played "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," Solo.
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