It has been said the worth of an artist is measured by the company he keeps. Seldom has that credo been shattered with more bravado than with Jeff Beck.
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At age 70, he remains a guitarist so wondrously and radically impulsive that it's tough to imagine any band being able to keep up with him. That's certainly true of the personnel backing him up on Live +, a new concert recording cut during a North American tour last August.
The players are all muscular in terms of chops and drive, especially formerly Wet Willie vocalist Jimmy Hall, who helps Beck assemble a repertoire that stretches back as far as his 1968 debut album Truth. But throughout Live +, Beck operates with a level of instinct that leaves his bandmates in the dust.
Take the boogie grinder Going Down, which Beck originally cut on the Jeff Beck Group album in 1972. Hall sings like a hurricane throughout the tune, a testament to his ageless voice but perhaps not his sense of dynamics. While the full tilt tone of the singing eventually becomes static, Beck treats the tune as a lab experiment, playing with the piece's blues-based rhythm by bending funky power chords and screaming punctuation in a way that more or less ignores Hall altogether.
The same holds true for a wild cover of the Mahavishnu Orchestra's You Know You Know. Composed over four decades ago by John McLaughlin as an ascending jam held together by a mantra-like melody, the piece becomes a playground for Beck. Bassist Rhonda Smith and Jonathan Joseph are generously afforded extended solos full of technical prowess but little sense of invention. Still, Beck has a field day by adding outer space hiccups and wiry bits of animation over the rhythm guitar of Nicolas Meier, luxuriating in the spaces McLaughlin wrote into the tune far more than the indulgences of his drummer and bassist.
The techno drive behind two new studio tracks, Tribal and My Tiled White Floor, are similarly unspectacular, yet Beck plays like a demon on both. But on the contemplative Where Were You and, of all things, a reading of Danny Boy, Beck downshifts to offer playing full of subtle grace and color.
That Beck's band plays a failing game of catch-up is almost beside the point. Few outfits outside of the Jan Hammer Group in the mid-1970s have proved a capable foil for the guitarist. What impresses most about Live + (and what ultimately recommends it) is the musicianship of an instrumentalist flexing not technique but instinct. Beck may be 70, but the playfulness he expresses on the recording sounds youthful and fearless.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic