Friday, April 3, 2009

Three Old Goats make good

Jeff Beck - Performing This Week…Live At Ronnie Scott’s

Jeff Beck has had a very unusual career. His total unwillingness to play the “major-label game” has allowed him the freedom to make uncompromising albums that shun commercial success in favor of experimental, guitar-geek fetish fests. He makes albums for guitar players and the kooks who love them. Unlike his contemporaries he has never lost his chops (Page) or his edge (Clapton), and is beyond criticism in many ways. He pioneered a style of playing that nobody else can touch. His precision and taste remain intact and he has done nothing to embarrass himself or tarnish his reputation. The main complaint his fans have had with him has always been his reluctance to put stuff out and tour. They just can’t get enough of their man.

Performing This Week goes a long way toward rectifying that. This CD and DVD (sold separately) capture a week of exquisite performances at the famous and famously small club in London.
Beck wastes no time in shredding through some of his most exciting material from throughout his long career. Opening with “Beck’s Bolero” it is obvious he is a guitar player still at the top of his game. There are no low points in this two-hour show and the high points are many. Clapton joins for two songs and the two of them wailing away together will give chills. He is also joined by Joss Stone for “People Get Ready” and Imogen Heap for a couple of numbers as well. The real excitement though is reserved for the Beck and his jaw-dropping band. Drummer Vinnie Colaiuta is simply one of the best ever. It is hard to choose between drummer and band leader when listening. There is such an abundance of notes and technically brilliant playing it is overwhelming at times. One has to remember that Beck’s commercial and artistic zenith came with Blow by Blow and Wired. Those two albums in many ways defined “Jazz-Rock” and certainly gave the genre its finest examples. Beck’s band plays as much like Mahavishnu Orchestra as they do The Yardbirds. Bass player Tal Wilkenfeld is also worth mentioning. Young, beautiful and sublimely talented, she is the perfect musical and visual foil for Beck. She is no flash in the pan either. Her soloing is spot-on throughout, and her confidence on stage promises a long career.
Longtime fans of Beck will be gratified at how intact and exciting his abilities are, and newcomers will wonder this guy doesn’t get more credit.

Van Morrison - Astral Weeks Live

Known as a tough, non-nostalgic curmudgeon, it was a surprise to everyone that he would be revisiting his legendary first major album in a live setting. This seemed like a very un-Van thing to do. He has never been interested in doing what his fans or critics wanted or expected of him. He has long avoided playing much of his most beloved record in concert and has publicly downplayed its greatness. He has always given his songbook equal billing in his live concerts, favoring his more recent material at many of them. As the band kicks off the opening title track it sounds as though he has put together a very tight band (including original guitarist Jay Berliner) that will do a satisfactory job of recreating the album. However, as the song reaches its natural ending, Van launches into a hypnotic improv vocal piece called “I Believe I’ve Transcended” that takes off to that rare Celtic ether that only Morrison is able to visit and talk about. The band follows him and what could have been an exercise in nostalgia or worse, cash-in, becomes a new and beautiful artistic statement. Over the course of the entirety of Astral Weeks and a couple of other choice numbers, Morrison goes outside the confines of the song again and again, reaching for a new musical triumph from the shadows of an old one. Unbelievably he succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. It is worth noting that the vinyl contains one more song (“Gloria”) than the CD. There is also a DVD coming of this show.

Leonard Cohen - Live In London

Unlike Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen has not only not played his old songs live, he hasn’t played ANY songs live for years. Through the misfortunes of a crooked manager, he has found himself in the position of having to tour in order at age 73 to have living expenses. Although one would not wish this on anyone, his many fans are the winners here as he puts together a wonderfully sympathetic 9-piece band to present his music in a beautiful and triumphant three-hour concert that shows him to be less reluctant retiree than eminence gris. He tackles his often dire material with the lighthearted touch of a man at home in his own skin. Throughout the long program Cohen seems both appreciative that he has such a large and adoring audience after all this time, and comfortable with the greatness of his own material which is brought to life magnificently through his well-preserved rumble of a voice and the great playing of his band. It is hard to downplay the excitement that is evident in the band and the audience. Everybody knows how special and rare this is, and everyone - especially Leonard Cohen - rises to the occasion.

No comments: