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Jeff Beck

     Truth (Epic, 1968)
    Beck-Ola (Epic, 1969)
    Rough and Ready (Epic, 1971)
   Jeff Beck Group (Epic, 1972)
   Beck, Bogert & Appice (Epic, 1973)
     Blow by Blow (Epic, 1975)
    Wired (Epic, 1976)
  Jeff Beck With the Jan Hammer Group Live (Epic, 1977)
    There and Back (Epic, 1980)
     Flash (Epic, 1985)
    Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop (Epic, 1988)
     Beckology (Epic, 1991)
    Crazy Legs (Epic, 1992)
   Frankie's House (Epic Soundtrax, 1992)
    Who Else! (Epic, 1999)
     You Had It Coming (Epic, 2001)
      Jeff (Epic, 2003)
     Official Bootleg USA '06 (Sony, 2007)
     Performing this Week….Live at Ronnie Scott's (Eagle, 2008)

Between his virtuosic command of the fretboard and his daredevil feel for feedback and distortion, Jeff Beck's playing is rarely less than astonishing. But he often lacks the vision and determination necessary to convert that instrumental intensity into viable group chemistry, a weakness that has kept his solo career from amounting to much more than a few dazzling moments scattered through a lot of disappointing music.

Perhaps the closest he's ever come to fronting a band that could balance and enhance his strengths as a soloist was with the group he formed after leaving the Yardbirds. Because both singer Rod Stewart and bassist/guitarist Ron Wood had enough presence and confidence to hold their own ground alongside Beck, the music they made together was often as cohesive as it was exciting. Truth, despite a tendency to confuse showboating with ambition, is an excellent example of the heights Beck and his bandmates could achieve; had they continued in this vein, in time they could have eclipsed even the mighty Led Zeppelin. Unfortunately, it was not to be; although Beck-Ola features a couple of amusingly energized Elvis covers ("Jailhouse Rock" and "All Shook Up"), the group's attempts to add a heavier edge to its sound only succeed in making the music more lugubrious.

After losing Stewart and Wood to the Faces, Beck's next group opted for a funkier approach, built around jazz-oriented keyboardist Max Middleton and David Clayton-Thomas imitator Bob Tench. It wasn't an ideal match. Rough and Ready stumbles whenever faced with a ballad but otherwise offers a passable gloss on the sort of vaguely improvisatory white soul Traffic made popular. But Jeff Beck Group pushes the band's mannerisms to the point of self-parody. Beck then tried the power-trio approach, but the results, as embodied by Beck, Bogert & Appice, aren't much better, offering all the self-indulgence of Cream but none of the focus or pop appeal. (A concert recording from this period, Beck, Bogert & Appice Live, is even more embarrassing, but was released only in Japan.)

By rights, Beck's next attempt at reinvention — this time as a fusion jazz star — ought to have been just as disastrous as the previous three, but thanks to producer George Martin, the all-instrumental Blow by Blow emerges as one of the most listenable and consistent albums of the guitarist's career. An eloquent player with absolutely nothing to say, Beck isn't much of a jazzman, but Martin works around the guitarist's limitations, elegantly framing the solos with sympathetic rhythm arrangements and lush string orchestrations.

With Wired, Beck leaps into the deep end, abandoning all his Blow by Blow playmates except Middleton to work with Mahavishnu Orchestra alumni Jan Hammer and Narada Michael Walden. Beck plays gamely, but it's really Hammer's album, since his synth solos are what ultimately galvanize the group. Jeff Beck With the Jan Hammer Group Live would seem a natural outgrowth from this collaboration, but the actual results are a mess, with Beck getting by on feedback and flash while Hammer's group tries to hold the music together. There and Back returns Beck to the studio with a more sympathetic set of collaborators (Hammer, drummer Simon Phillips, keyboardist Tony Hymas), but still goes nowhere.

Astonishingly, Beck's next album, Flash, was a pop outing with Wet Willie alumnus Jimmy Hall singing on most tracks. Thanks to producers Nile Rodgers and Arthur Baker, it's consistent and accessible, but threw sparks only when the guitarist reunited with Rod Stewart for a version of "People Get Ready." Bored, Beck went back to fusion and the empty acrobatics of Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop, but that didn't last. His next album, Crazy Legs, was a tribute to Gene Vincent & the Bluecaps guitarist Cliff Gallup that found Beck playing in classic rockabilly style with the Big Town Playboys, while the soundtrack album Frankie's House found him working in a enough different styles (R&B, New Age, semimetal) to show off his versatility, but without enough focus for the music to make much of an impression.

Although not quite a career summation, the box set Beckology includes highlights from the above, as well as Beck's first recordings (with the Tridents), a good sampling of his Yardbirds material, and a smattering of arcana. By rights, it should have been a solid career summation, but in the late Nineties Beck discovered techno and found himself creatively refreshed. Partly live and partly studio-concocted, Who Else! had its moments, but never quite gelled. You Had It Coming offered a more cohesive approach, particularly in its interplay with guitarist Jennifer Batten (the first real fretboard sparring partner Beck has had since the Yardbirds) and in its approach to such roots material as the blues standard "Rollin' and Tumblin'." Jeff more fully embraced the studio-based aesthetic, pairing Beck with only a producer (mostly Andy Wright and Apollo 440) and one or two musicians for most tracks. But because his guitar reacts purely to the tracks, it's as if all filters have evaporated; not only does he recapture the improvisational abandon of Wired, he actually takes the music a step forward. Who says the keyboard is mightier than the fretboard?

Official Bootleg and Ronnie Scott's capture single-show performances, from the Greek Theater in L.A. and Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival in Austin, respectively. Both find Beck laying into material new and old, sounding near the top of his game.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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