Jeff Beck + Imelda May @ Symphony Hall, Birmingham – 25th June 2009


Jeff Beck seems quite laid back and unassuming for a guitar god, but despite this and against the wealth of talent in his band, he cuts an imposing figure and you know that this is his show. Even the stage lay out seemed to emphasise this with bass drums and keyboards laid out in a rhythm section format very much to the right of the stage leaving a wide open space for the guitarist to exploit.

The musical genre may be hard to pin down with blues, jazz and plain old rock coming to the fore, sometimes all in the same tune, but the guitar is the main attraction. Tonight there was more than a smattering of Trower, Satriani, and Bonamassa T shirts in the largely middle aged audience betraying the obvious focus of the fans but the band proved to be a lot more than just window dressing for the guitar.

Maybe its because he still insists on using a lead to the amp rather than the wireless that many of his contemporaries use but for all that space he still seemed a bit cramped and inhibited and if anything gravitated to the other three band members which gave the whole set a visually lopsided feel.

He is loud. Loud enough for the Symphony Hall in any case. Perhaps he could have done with donating a bit of the volume to Imelda May and her band who were the support for the night. They played a great set but the sound seemed to struggle to fill the hall. There is a fine review of her performance at the Glee Club earlier this year elsewhere on this site and to be fair although they were by no means overwhelmed by the Symphony Hall venue, I would think that they are better suited to smaller venues where the audience is closer and the atmosphere more claustrophobic.

She really looks and sounds the part with some great songs like the single “Big Bad Handsome Man” and her cover of the Beatles’ “Oh Darling”, and she provided me with my first experience of rockabilly bodhrán! She’s on at the Musician Stage at Summer Sundae this year and I, for one, will be there.

There was something appropriate in the 50s vibe of the support opening for a musician whose career almost goes back that far. However, other than the blues elements there is not much in Jeff Beck’s repertoire that harks back to the sixties although he still opens with “Beck’s Bolero” and Charles Mingus “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” leads in to “Brush With The Blues” later in the set.

His appearance comes as a bit of a shock. Jeff Beck should be dressed in black; its the law. But tonight the boots, the strides and the sleeveless jacket were all gloss white. They were so white that even his famous white stratocaster was made to look a bit on the creamy side.

The set list was a well established one with the current line up coming off the back off tours of the USA, Japan and Australia and appearances at Ronnie Scott’s. The standards were in there with “Space Boogie”, “The Pump”, “Blue Wind” and “Led Boots” prominent but they were all given a much jazzier feel. This was thanks in no small measure to the presence of Jason Rebello (keyboards) and Tal Wilkenfeld (bass) in the line up. Both are fundamentally jazz players and both have worked with some of the greats: Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Wayne Krantz and Herbie Hancock to name a few.

You could easily divide the band into the old rockers; Beck himself and Vinnie Colaiuta (drums), and the two younger performers. Tal Wilkenfeld is only 23, looks 16 and is dwarfed by bass guitar and amp stack alike but appearances are deceptive as she plays effortlessly. Tunes like “You Never Know” were given a real jazz funk feel more akin to Zawinul than Beck and “Freeway Jam” was played as a bass improvisation with Wilkenfeld and Beck playing the same bass guitar at the same time!

Jeff Beck was appropriately the star of the show. His playing is always effortless in the same way. He doesn’t need to beat the guitar up as some do in order to produce a vast range of sound and tone. There were none of the typical numerous guitar changes so often seen with other players and I don’t think he needed to tune his strat until the encore. Tonight this allowed him to really exploit his range of material with the more thoughtful “’Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” and “Nadia” really shining through and illustrating his total control of the guitar.

The main set ended with the Beatles’ A Day In The Life, seemingly the cover of choice for ageing guitarists, with the encore producing Scottish One and “the best thing Henry Mancini ever did” Peter Gunn to finish.

The only slight disappointment was that other than heightened jazz influence in the band there was nothing new here. His last album was six years ago and he has seemed content just to contribute to others’ albums. Maybe with Rebello and Wilkenfeld producing music in their own right he has the opportunity to get some new stuff together with this band.

Set list (I think!):

Becks Bolero
The Pump
You Never Know
Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers
Behind the Veil
Blast From The East
Led Boots
Space Boogie
Goodbye Pork Pie Hat/Brush With The Blues
Blue Wind
Freeway Jam Improvisation
Big Block
A Day in The Life
Scottish One
Peter Gunn

Review – Ian Gelling

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