Jeff Beck, Speaking Without Words
Photos by Jason Wolter
Aftermath supposes that, when it comes to music, poetry is where you find it. But unlike the evergreen Beatles vs. Stones debate, or the even more pronounced vinyl/CD/MP3 back-and-forth, the line between those who prefer their music with lyrics and those who can take it straight without the benefit (or distraction) of accompanying words only seems as clear-cut as the other two.
Though we suspect it may not be quite what they set out to do, Jeff Beck and his three-piece band proved how difficult it can be for some folks, namely us, to divorce the notes we hear from the words that go along with them (even if those words exist only in our heads, as they did Saturday), and how easily it is for us to dismiss notes that have no corresponding words, no matter how expertly they are arranged and performed.
Aftermath's lyrics-first point of view, perhaps born of our lifelong love of language in all its forms of expression (including musically), seemed to put us in the minority at the sold-out Verizon Saturday. All around us, the seated audience was positively transfixed by Beck's formidable instrumental talent. Countless heads nodded in time, and twice that many pairs of eyes followed every swift swoop and slide of Beck's hands across his fingerboard. We swear we caught the guy next to us drooling at one point. Sheer logic dictates that Saturday's entire audience couldn't have been composed entirely of guitarists, or even former or frustrated guitarists. Even for someone who could never quite tell the difference between a Stratocaster and a Telecaster - and whichever gleaming-cream Fender Beck was using up there, it was cherry and obviously looked after - there was never any question Beck deserves his place as one of the supreme guitar icons in rock and roll lore, right next to peers Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and former Yardbirds mate Jimmy Page. And likewise, there was little doubt where Beck's instrumentals came from: Nearly every were rooted in the hard-driving tenacity and train-kept-a-rollin' boogie of the sizzling electric blues that so enchanted Beck and his mates in the '60s. Most of them came overlaid with a hard-rock/metallic sheen that suggested Eddie Van Halen must have worn some serious grooves in his Beck vinyl back in the early '70s, while the slower songs called to mind the Zen-like guitar meditations of Eric Johnson - technically masterful, completely centered and, for someone who knows what a pentatonic scale is but couldn't care less how many of them we hear at any given concert, kind of boring.
So it was no surprise to Aftermath that the songs that most resonated with us were the ones we recognized as having actual lyrics, occasionally even out loud: Muddy Waters' "Rollin & Tumblin'," as covered by the Yardbirds in the '60s and sung by bassist Rhonda Smith Saturday, slayed us most, as Smith showed gospel-caliber vocal chops to go along with the jazz- and funk-steeped instrumental skills that nearly upstaged her boss a couple of times. Besides that, a thoughtful, care-taken version of Curtis Mayfield's gospel-soul anthem "People Get Ready" seemed to pass in slow motion, and an equally tender cover of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow. As Beck caressed every note of the timeless Wizard of Oz standard, Aftermath wondered if the guitarist was imagining the words in his head the same way we were, or if he was thinking in some foreign instrumental tongue. We got our answer a minute or two later, as Beck attempted to lead the audience in singing the final few words of the song, an attempt that never quite got off the ground. Oh well. The rest of the evening, the guitarist seemed quite happy to communicate with his disciples in that inscrutable instrumental Esperanto, and we were quite happy to let them.
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