Jeff Beck is one of the greatest living electric guitarists, and on Friday, he reminded the full house that despite more than 40 years in the business, he's far from finished. His friends Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page have done more than well since leaving the Yardbirds, but Beck is the former Yardbird who has flown highest as a soloist. He is still on fire, still pushing the envelope and still commanding the stage like a young man with a chip on his shoulder and a twinkle in his eye.
He wrapped a large-band rock 'n' roll revue in honor of his heroes Les Paul and Cliff Gallup recently, but on Friday, Beck was in a different mood altogether. Most of the Mainstage Theatre show in UB's Center for the Arts centered around his instrumental music, either culled directly from the George Martin-produced "Wired" and "Blow By Blow" albums, or in the vein of those records. Funk rhythms with jazz chords and soloing that blended blues and "outside," more chromatic notes were the order of the day.
Joined by collaborators Rhionda Smith on bass and vocals, Jason Rebello on keys and the legendary Narada Michael Walden on the drum kit, Beck highlighted tunes from last year's Grammy-winning "Emotion and Commotion" album, interspersing them with favorites from his '70s fusion albums and unexpected instrumental interpretations from the likes of Benjamin Britten (by way of Jeff Buckley) and Lennon & McCartney.
Much of the time, the effect was overwhelming. Everyone was playing so well, and each player listened to the other, offering commentary rather than interference, that the listener felt privileged to be "sitting in."
Beck plays with a heart-melting blend of vibrato, restraint and melodic verve, and his mastery always managed to avoid the showboating that so many great guitarists foolishly embrace. Whether he was interpreting a Puccini aria ("Nessun Dorma") or finding his own soul in a Curtis Mayfield tune ("People Get Ready"), Beck seemed to be channeling something deeper than mere ego with his playing. He plays solos that sound like the human voice, at turns crying, cheering, offering a clever aside, or simply indulging in a touch of the poet.
It's interesting that Beck still stands so tall above his electric guitarist peers. Taking the road less traveled has worked out well for him. Friday's show was simply mind-blowingly good.
Friday evening in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, North Campus, Amherst.