We had the pleasure of catching Jeff Beck in concert a few years back at House of Blues Cleveland, mere days following his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The 2009 HOF ceremony—held right here at Cleveland’s Public Hall—was the second go-around for the guitarist, who was ensconced in 1992 as a member of The Yardbirds.
That was our first time seeing Beck live. Needless to say, the British gunslinger was electrifying. So we made a point of venturing out when he returned for a gig at E.J. Thomas Hall in Akron last October (we’ve included some photos here). It certainly didn’t hurt that legendary Beach Boys bassist / composer was sharing the bill.
Talk about your good vibrations.
Now, thanks to Eagle Rock, we can relive the excitement on home video.
No, the Akron show wasn’t filmed (not that we’re aware of, anyway). But Jeff Beck: Live in Tokyo presents a full hundred-minute concert featuring the same band and same songs (and then some), albeit on the Tokyo Dome’s much larger stage. Directed by Chikara Tanaka and Joss Crowley, the multi-camera movie experience chronicles Beck’s April 9, 2014 gig precisely five years after his induction.
The Wallington-born Beck first dropped jaws in the ‘60s when he supplanted Eric Clapton in The Yardbirds. His first “solo” efforts (with Jeff Beck Group)—1968’s Truth and 1969’s Beck-Ola—saw the guitarist jumbling genres (from blues to jazz to heavy metal) with prolific pianist Nicky Hopkins and a spritely singer named Rod Stewart. Later, Beck aligned with Vanilla Fudge’s Tim Bogert and Carmen Appice, and in the ‘70s with drummer Cozy Powell.
1975 opus Blow By Blow paved the way for future shredders like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, whose own guitar-centric records set new standards in the 80s. Perhaps the most versatile of the English guitar heroes of the ‘60s (like contemporaries Clapton and Jimmy Page), Jeff blazed ahead with seminal solo releases like Wired, Flash, and Guitar Shop in between guest appearances on albums by such diverse artists as Mick Jagger, Roger Waters, Jon Bon Jovi, Les Paul, and Cyndi Lauper. Along the way, he notched numerous Grammys a couple honorary doctorates and fellowships, and the aforementioned Rock Hall accolades. He consistently comes in near the top of most trade periodicals’ annual “best guitarist” lists.
The material on Live in Tokyo shows what all the fuss is about (as if you didn’t know). Now in his 70th year (like Clapton and Page), Beck still burns with the best of ‘em, plucking his trademark white Fender Strat sans plectrum (he stopped using picks decades ago) on twenty-plus classic covers and audacious originals. No pyrotechnics, laser lights, or fog machines mar the view; there’s just the four musicians and their instruments rocking out on an expansive stage, a cache of cameras capturing their every move.
Clad in a grey tank-top, black vest, khaki pants, and aviator shades, Beck greets his Japanese devotees with crunchy chords and searing leads as Smith (in granny glasses) thrums an electric four-string over Joseph’s brutal beat and Meier’s complementary guitar line. It’s the first and only time Jeff doesn’t play his signature Strat, tweaking the strings of a Telecaster instead.
Beck cooks up cool 7th chords during his elegant interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” hand gliding over the frets and depressing the tremolo to slur his bird-like notes while Meier picks steady arpeggios. The volume creases (as does the energy level) when the band breezes into John McLaughlin’s “You Know You Know” and Beck’s own “Hammerhead,” Smith popping and slapping her bass strings as Jeff taps his guitar neck with his fingertips. “Angel (Footsteps)” sees the group shifting back into low gear, indulging an easy island rhythm for Beck’s airy, trebly, whale song lead melody.
Billy Cobham’s barnstorming “Stratus” and Tony Hyman’s pulsating “Pump” highlight the halfway mark, as does Meier’s own composition “Yemin,” whereon the goateed guitarist conjures Turkish and Eastern strains from his Godin before swapping lead lines with his still-sunglassed employer. Smith weaves a menacing rumble from her upright acoustic bass with a cellist’s bow, and a standing Joseph beats on his drums and hardware with mallets like a symphonic timpanist.
The group salutes Charles Mingus with an uber-bluesy “Goodbye Porkpie Hat / Brush With the Blues” and tip the proverbial hat to fusionist Jan Hammer on the funky, hi-hat powered “You Never Know.” Tearjerker “Danny Boy” manages to hypnotize even this Far East audience, Beck bending his strings to evoke the traditional Irish ballad. The tough “Blue Wind” and muscular Middleman entry “Led Boots” bring the crowd in on the action; the fans wail and “Whooo!” on cue to Jeff’s quirky guitar runs. Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi” is short but sweet—but Beck’s own “Big Block” (from 1989’s Guitar Shop) rocks the house.
The grand finale finds Jeff re-imagining McCartney, Muddy Waters, and Stevie Wonder on the cinematic Sgt. Pepper staple “A Day in the Life,” twangy, chickin’ pickin’ Mississippi Delta ditty “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” and the sultry “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers.” Smith steps up to the mic for enthusiastic encore “Why Give It Away,” melting hearts on the evening’s only vocal (and a track taken from Jeff’s limited-edition Japanese EP Yosogai).
DVD bonus features include the fifteen-minute “Set List Commentary” and brief “Band on Band” section wherein the musicians discuss the repertoire, and what each player brings to the songs.
Swiss-bred Meier is described as a “fan of flamenco” whose finger-style guitar work and synth pedals “create more textures” in concert. Smith says Joseph has “incredible chops and timing,” and brings all the elements of world music, rock, and jazz to bear upon Beck’s live shows. The drummer returns the favor, calling Smith “an absolute powerhouse, as funky as they come.”
“She’s all that and a bag of chips!” laughs Joseph.
As for the star? Smith insists “it’s not all about technique or practice” with Beck so much as individuality and spontaneity.
“He rarely plays the same thing twice,” notes the bassist.
Live in Tokyo isn’t Beck’s first concert film (or even his first Japanese concert film)—but it just may be the best, boasting stellar performances of killer music from throughout the guitarist’s illustrious fifty-year career.