JEFF BECK with TOM WILSON at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Friday (March 16). $44.50-$54.50. 416-872-4255. Rating: NNNNN
jeff beck may not have achieved the infamy or riches of his contemporaries Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton -- former Yardbirds all -- but in terms of musical innovation, they don't come close. While Clapton and Page were rehashing 30-year-old hits in the 90s, the Sussex-based vintage car freak and staunch vegetarian was scoping the percussive beats firing Britain's rave scene. That set the stage for the release of his first studio album of original material in a decade, 99's electronically goosed Who Else!
That Beck -- who turns 57 in June -- immediately followed it up last February with the mind-meltingly modern You Had It Coming, is proof that he remains vital as both player and composer.
He isn't interested in aping trends. The man who successfully fused jazz, rock and Eastern rhythms 25 years ago remains devoted to discovering new voices within his Fender Strat.
Yet Beck doesn't fear technology, which is why You Had It Coming, though naturally long on flashy fretwork and still technically rock, swerves into drum 'n' bass, Indian raga and stuttering electronica, and looks back long enough to salute the blues with a tear through Rollin' And Tumblin'. It's the only track on the disc that takes (or requires) a vocal, from English singer Imogen Heap. And yes, a remix of the track Dirty Mind is apparently already done, via the Syze-Up crew.
It's hard to imagine Clapton messing with loops and drum machines, or even former Jeff Beck Group singer Rod Stewart sitting up until the wee hours to check out rare grooves programs on the telly, as Beck does. But he refuses to be an oldies jukebox.
Speaking from home, a disarmingly friendly and self-deprecating Beck suggests that his relative lack of commercial success is part of what's kept him current.
"I've never had to go out and promote massively successful albums," Beck laughs, "though it might be nice to have that happen one day. Because I've been out of the line of fire, I've been able to examine what's going on. I haven't wasted my time away.
"I listen to all kinds of things. I'm not very interested in lyrics -- I've heard enough of how much somebody loves somebody else. I'm much more interested in sound sculpting and what the actual groove does to you."
He may be innovative, but Beck -- who declares the Prodigy the only band he'd wait in line to see -- is no one's idea of prolific. The decade separating What Else! from 89's Guitar Shop saw just one full release, 93's Gene Vincent tribute disc, Crazy Legs. And the joke among fans is that the only time Beck goes on tour is when he needs a new car.
"Not true," he howls. "I actually need new tires.
"I hope to be able to keep some momentum going by playing some dynamite gigs the old fashioned way, with blood and sweat."
But Beck has always actively worked behind the scenes, contributing to solo discs by Mick Jagger, Roger Waters, Tina Turner and Robert Plant's Honeydrippers.
And if he's quick to shoot down the guitar god label, it could be because such a tag would overshadow his compositional skills. There are lots of great players -- hello Pat Metheny -- but few who consistently craft great songs. Typically, though, Beck won't even cop to that.
"I've been fortunate to have great writers around who've kept me going," he says. "People like Jan Hammer -- we still bring the house down every time we play Blue Wind (from the groundbreaking Wired record), even though it was done in the 70s. I stick with what I know because those players are also world-class composers as well.
"But I had to cut the cord eventually and look out for other sources of material. Drum machines were a convenient tool for me. With the new technology I can write really fast, and that's especially true working with someone like (album producer) Andy Wright, who's really fast.
"I'd play three lines and he'd have recorded it before I had time to think. I need that kind of speed in order to forge some kind of recognizable shape from a tune.
"If you can at least get a verse-chorus-verse, even if it's crap, at least you've got something to work with. But to sit there just with a guitar and a tape machine is daunting.
"I just can't work that way. I want things now. So I am at once lazy and impatient. I am two people, which may explain why I get up in the morning and hit myself, ha ha ha." *
firstname.lastname@example.orgI was the first act he went on the road with, in 67, all the way to the Fillmore West. We were just starting to make a lot of noise and then Rod left the group. That was the end of that. I think Pete knew that getting hold of another Rod Stewart was, er, highly unlikely, so he switched over to handling Jimmy Page. Probably the best move he ever made.They give spectacular gifts. I was once given a remote-control car. It took me 10 days to build -- it had an engine that started and you had to put fuel in it. It had something like 4,000 moving parts and was about 14 inches long when it was done. After I'd assembled it, I took it out in the car park for its maiden voyage and it got crushed by an incoming car. Never found out who gave it to me. That was the Blow By Blow tour. I do remember thinking we went down better than they did, but it was cool playing with them. We were starting to break ground with the jazz-rock sound and I still was unsure whether we were doing the right thing. Apparently we were. It's a backhanded compliment. If there were no bootlegs, I'd have to wonder if I was doing something wrong. But it's annoying and unnerving to think of stuff being out there that, given the chance, you'd never allow to be released. But what are you going to do? KH