If he never played a note, Jeff Beck would still be King Cool. At the age of fifty-six, he remains one of the greatest posers in rock & roll, Man as Walking Riff: dressed with stripped-down class in white T-shirt, black vest and black jeans; legs spread in a warrior stance, head down as if in concentrated prayer, right arm held high in Olympic victory salute as his white Fender Strat erupts in soprano feedback. More than any of his surviving peers and competitors from the British Guitar God wars of the mid and late 1960s — Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Mick Taylor — Beck looks like rock & roll.
The fact that what he plays sounds like a divine gift makes it all the more infuriating that, until recently, Beck toured and recorded with the frequency of locust plagues. This tour, and the record that goes with it, You Had It Coming, mark his second burst of activity in just two years, a personal best for a guy who has sometimes gone entire decades between sightings. Yet except for his recent studio shenanigans with drum loops and techno electronics, what Beck plays, and the way he plays it, is virtually unchanged since he first put real “rock” in jazz-rock fusion in the mid-1970s with Blow By Blow and Wired. During Friday’s show, the second of two packed nights at New York’s Roseland, Beck sandwiched Wired‘s choppy, old-school stomp, “Led Boots,” between rave-tastic jams from You Had It Coming as if nary a day had passed between them. And he did it with entirely organic muscle: volume, natural distortion, over-driven-amp harmonics, his fierce manual stranglehold on his white Strats whammy bar. The only outboard gear Beck used the whole night was a wah-wah pedal and a metal bottleneck. Everything else was man-made magic.
It is no wonder that Beck pretty much stopped working with singers twenty-five years ago: There is no room for them in this music. Beck’s manipulation of melodic statements pulling extra high-pitched sustain from an end note; chopping up a core riff into a vivid shower of staccato and shivering tremolo is a vivid reminder of the expressive possibilities of the guitar. Without cheating on heaviness, Beck invests his hooks and solos with a colorful elegance and intuitive precision that together are at once orchestral and intimate. This is a sound that literally fills the room, yet feels as if it is laser-aimed right between your eyes. It was astonishing, too, to hear him pull high-pitched anguish and deep elephant groans from his strings with what must be a hell of a thumbnail.
Beck has found strong discreet foils in bassist Randy Hope-Taylor, drummer Andy Gunga Din and synth guitarist Jennifer Batten; they kick and gallop behind him with perfect spunk. (Batten stepped out for the vocal turn on You Had It‘s electro-juke-joint treatment of “Roll and Tumblin.”) But the might, heart and imagination that have made Beck a genre entirely unto himself, a player truly without peer, were best heard in his brilliant rescoring of the Beatles “A Day in the Life,” in which he picked the verse licks with the combined soul and flair of Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix, exploded into multiple colliding screams during the orchestral crescendo sections and then grounded the middle strolling bridge in vicious funk. Then for the finale, Beck took off his guitar, held it upside down with the headstock on the floor and shook the shit out of his whammy bar while pummeling and pulling at the lower strings, making hellfire in place of that famous fading piano chord. It was killer guitar drama, the kind that is now all too rare in a world actually overrun with guitar players.
Funny thing: The stage set included two circular video screens, which showed, in mirror images, Beck playing live below. From where I was standing, I could only see the screen on the left, which showed him reversed, playing left-handed. It was disconcerting for awhile, as if I was watching the show backwards. Then again, Beck could have played the entire show inside out, standing on his head and it would have still sounded like God was in the house. Jeff Beck doesn’t just make the impossible sound easy. He makes it rock.