Jeff Beck throwing a 'Rock 'n' Roll Party' at the Michigan Theater
When Jeff Beck performs at the Michigan Theater on Thursday, his fans will see a different side of the iconic guitar god. Instead of performing signature songs like “Freeway Jam,” “Beck’s Bolero,” and “Blue Wind” — or his inspired deconstruction of the Beatles “A Day in the Life” — he’ll be throwing a “Rock ‘n Roll Party,” accompanied by the Imelda May Band. And part of the set is a tribute to electric-guitar pioneer Les Paul, one of Beck’s biggest heroes, who died in 2009 at age 94.
Beck and the May band performed such a set last summer at the Iridium jazz club in New York City — where Paul had performed every week for 14 years up until his death — and recorded it for a CD and DVD that were released in February, both also titled “Rock ‘n’ Roll Party.” That show included guest turns by Brian Setzer, Gary “U.S.” Bonds and Trombone Shorty.
At that gig, Beck, May and band delivered luminous performances of several songs that were big '1950s-era hits for Paul, often with his wife, Mary Ford — like “How High the Moon," "Vaya Con Dios," "Tiger Rag" and more.
But the set was also heavy with some of Beck’s favorite rockabilly / R&B classics from the '50s and ‘60s, including “Twenty Flight Rock,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Rock Around The Clock,” “Shake, Rattle & Roll” — and, of course, “Train Kept a Rollin,” which the Yardbirds covered when Beck was their guitarist in the mid-’60s. (Some of those rockabilly / R&B covers didn’t make it onto the CD, but are on the DVD.)
May, an Irish rockabilly singer, handled most of the vocals at that gig, and will reprise that role for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Party mini-tour: Beck is only doing 12 of these Rock ‘n’ Roll Party shows with the May band, before re-joining his own band in mid-April and resuming his usual shows, which feature several songs from his 2010 release, “Emotion and Commotion.” That disc earned Beck two Grammy awards in February — Best Rock Instrumental Performance and Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
Speaking about the Rock ‘n’ Roll Party shows, Beck recently told Reuters: “I'm pretty certain that people will enjoy what we're gonna do, because the nostalgia thing is there, pre-Beatles. It shows pretty closely what things were like in '57-'58. It's a great excuse to do that and have fun doing it ... Nothing stays the same, but I don't see why that music should be dead."
But just because Beck chose to celebrate vintage songs from a more innocent era, that doesn’t mean he checked his innate guitar bravado and virtuoso chops at the door. On the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Party” discs, he unspools speedy fretboard runs, rumbling low-note riffs and fiery solos. So guitar freaks will not be disappointed.
Beck says he was turned on to Paul’s innovative sounds when he was just a child.
"I was 6 years old when I first heard him on the radio, and I was stunned, fascinated by the sound, that strange slap-echo," Beck told AOL News. "My mum said, 'I've heard of this chap.' She knew I was mesmerized by the sound of that guitar, and then she told me, 'I wouldn't get too excited by that, it's deception with electronic mirrors, it's all tricks.' I said, ‘Great, fantastic!’ To a kid of 6, you want to hear tricks, don't you? I mean, what could have been more interesting?
But, in truth, Paul “was more than just a box of technical tricks,” Beck continued. “He played beautifully, he always nailed the melody and then had fun with it by doing all that extravagant embroidery around the vocals."
Beck was more than just an admirer of Paul’s, though. They also eventually became friends.
“It just a delight to have him around,” Beck told Reuters. “He came to the Roseland (Ballroom in New York). We were pretty full on .doing some of the techno stuff, and he'd just never heard anything like it."
Meanwhile, “Emotion and Commotion” was another heady, stellar entry in Beck’s long, legendary catalog. “Hammerhead,” a Beck composition, commences with a trippy wah-wah intro, and then launches into one of the pile-driving, fusionesque grooves that have become Beck’s signature. And Beck recruited an orchestra to back him on his distinctive interpretation of “Over the Rainbow,” which showed that he still possesses a wonderful dynamic sense.
Kevin Ransom is a free-lance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com He can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.