As the final notes of "Cocaine" rang through Madison Square Garden last night, Jeff Beck quietly walked onto the stage next to Eric Clapton, sarcastically saluted his fellow guitar legend and launched into a jaw-dropping cover of Elmore James' "Shake Your Money Maker." For the next 40 minutes the former Yardbirds guitarists traded licks on songs by everyone from Willie Dixon to Sly Stone to Henry Mancini as the sold-out crowd reached a state of air guitar nirvana never before witnessed by man. At the end of the night they bowed to each other, as if they had just completed a karate match.
Forty years ago these two men — who are currently sharing the cover of Rolling Stone — were widely regarded as the two greatest guitarists of their time. After brief back-to-back stints in the Yardbirds (Beck replaced Clapton) they went on to the Jeff Beck Group and Cream, laying the groundwork for Led Zeppelin and all blues rock that followed. Since the early 1970s, however, the two men took radically different paths as Clapton made highly commercial rock and pop while Beck churned out highly un-commercial jazz-fusion and other instrumental projects. Beck went far off the pop grid, but his reputation survived fully intact and when he announced a co-headlining show with Clapton in Japan last year it created a frenzy that lead to a brief international tour.
Beck took the stage first, opening with "Eternity's Breath" by the 1970s jazz-fusion group the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It's hard to keep the attention of massive arena with a 40-minute instrumental set of largely unknown songs, but Beck pulled it off — aided by his killer band and a large string section. Some members of the crowd screamed for anything remotely familiar, like Beck's famous cover of "People Get Ready," but most sat quietly in awe as Beck's guitar soared on songs like "Corpus Christy Carol" and the Puccini aria "Nessun Dorma." The only song familiar to a classic rock audience was the Beatles "A Day In The Life," which earned Beck a Grammy a few weeks ago.
After a brief break, Clapton opened with a brief acoustic set that mixed blues standards ("Driftin' Blues," "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out") with Clapton originals like 1983's "I've Got A Rock And Roll Heart." He plugged in for a five-song set highlighted by the Derek and the Dominoes chestnut "Tell The Truth" and his famous cover of "I Shot The Sheriff." The Bob Marley cover and J.J. Cale's "Cocaine" were the only nod to his arsenal of radio hits, leaving tunes like "Wonderful Tonight," "Tears In Heaven" and even "Layla" and "Sunshine Of Your Love" behind. Every basketball arena in this country has seen those songs about 87 times and he wisely realized enough's enough.
The show reached a whole other level when Beck came out, as both guitarists were clearly playing at the absolute top of their game. An unexpected "Moon River" was particularly otherwordly, as Beck played the vocal melody on his guitar before Clapton stepped up to the mic and did his best Andy Williams. Cream's "Outside Woman Blues" rocked significantly harder than when Cream themselves played it at MSG five yeas ago, and Sly Stone's "I Want To Take You Higher" had the two guitarists trading solos back and forth so quickly it was often hard to tell who was playing what. It ended with Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," a song that hasn't had much oomph for Clapton since his Cream days — but with Beck playing about three feet away from him it sounded fresh again.
• Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and the Way of the Guitar: The New Issue of Rolling Stone
• Eric Clapton On Jeff Beck's Singing and Having An Old Man's Voice
• Eric Clapton Announces 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival: Jeff Beck, B.B. King, John Mayer, More
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