Thursday, 2 August 2018

review: Jeff Beck at Budweiser Stage, Toronto

I saw Jeff Beck tonight.  It was transcendental.

The evening began with sets by Ann Wilson of Heart and Paul Rodgers of Free/Bad Company.  Both were brilliant, and showed no signs of slowing down in their late 60s.  Rodgers finished his set proper with Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy, with the final words being the ad libbed "it's my dream".  In that exact moment I realized how grateful we should all be that these legendary musicians are putting their bodies through hell for months at a time on the road so that we can be entertained for a couple hours, despite being past what the rest of us would reasonably consider to be retirement age.

And then Jeff Beck began his set with a piece off his latest album.  It didn't take long to realize that his guitar has as unique a voice as the singers who preceded him.  He's possibly the best rock guitarist I've ever seen, demonstrating pure artistry through and through.  As Jimmy Page repeatedly said when he inducted Beck into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, "he just keeps getting better and better."

So many of the performers from days of yore rest on their laurels, but Beck has always pushed himself to stretch the limits of where the guitar can go.  This was the furthest thing from a nostalgia show.  Now age 74, he has thus long earned the right to play what he wants.  Despite having 17 studio albums under his belt, he did mostly covers, crossing many genres.  The second song was the beautiful Nadia from his early 2000s electronica period, and Mná na h-Éireann is a folk song based on an 18th century Irish poem.

Many of the pieces were different arrangements from what he had done on previous tours, like his encore of the Corpus Christi Carol, this time performed only with his cellist Vanessa Freebairn-Smith.  The man is constantly innovating.

Like Frank Zappa, the guitar is an extension of his brain, and he never plays a piece the same way twice.  Instead of using a pick, he oscillates between his thumb and index fingers.  He has created a secret handshake on his instrument that is so distinctly him.  His sound is as instantly recognizable as David Gilmour's or Brian May's.  But to call him an innovative guitarist doesn't entirely capture his essence.  He has carved his own brand of creative expression.  He is without equal.

Beck always chooses the finest musicians to tour with.  Canadian bassist Rhonda Smith, known for her work with Prince, played brilliantly throughout.  Beck is always playing with new people, expanding the sound of his ensemble and never wanting to repeat himself.  But legendary drummer Vinnie Colaiuta is one of the mainstays, whenever he is available.  I can't believe I paid $45 to see this many of the greats on one night.

Vocalist Jimmy Hall wasn't on stage for the first four songs, which leaves the audience thinking it's an instrumental show (which I would have been entirely fine with).  A brilliant vocalist, Hall sang six songs to add variety to the show as it progressed, including two of the more recognizable tunes, Little Wing and Superstition, the latter of which Beck helped Stevie Wonder write.

Stevie's Cause We've Ended as Lovers, one of Beck's signature pieces, was delivered with authority and grace, as was the set closer, A Day In The Life.  The latter sees a fine balance of Beck's emotive and playful style, and the build to the final chord left the audience in great anticipation for the crashing finale.

His British humility showed at the end of the night after introducing the band.  After Colaiuta signaled to him, he joked - "oh, it's just a piece of wood with wires."

I haven't been this inspired after seeing a show in probably a decade.  It reinforced every feeling and thought I've had to date that has told me I don't ever want to have a day job.  One cannot have a day job and work on their craft to become even 1/10th of the well-rounded musician Jeff Beck is.  It is a dedication that requires focus, persistence, and zero compromise.

Big name Toronto musicians like Kim Mitchell of Max Webster fame and Geddy Lee of Rush attended the show.  Mike Turner, formerly of Our Lady Peace, summed up the show to me in two words:

"The. Master."

And when your peers are that bold and conclusive, that says it all.


  1. How the heck do you get to sit near Mike Turner??