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Worth it just for Beck and Heap
on September 1, 2012
When I was a kid Jeff Beck was a guitar hero -- the flashiest guy around. When he turned to fusion I stopped listening because at the time I was a very loyal fan of acoustic jazz and resented the advent of jazz rock - which sounded like cop show music to me anyway. Now, decades later, with the prejudices of youth behind me, I have rediscovered Jeff. He really is a fabulous instrumentalist with a delightful flamboyance and an agreeable fondness for melody. Now, the ugly truth is that I just purchased this album and haven't received it yet so the only tracks I know are the ones on YouTube, but they are all great. There is one that I am particularly anxious to own, which is the version of Rollin and Tumblin with Imogene Heap. Rollin and Tumblin is a traditional up-tempo blues; I think it's sometimes credited to Muddy Waters. Cream did a cover version as did many other bands, I'm sure, back in the heyday of blues rock. It has a very catchy riff; possibly Eric Clapton came up with it starting from a traditional phrase. Jeff figured out a great way to play the riff and has turned the song into a really irresistable vocal/instrumental showpiece. Now, what is wonderful about Imogene Heap is that she is not someone you would expect to be singing a Muddy Waters song. She's into electronica and experimental stuff. But she has a great, powerful voice and an instinctive feel for the throb and urgency of an up-tempo blues. Her singing is at once surrealistic and traditional, inside and outside the tradition at once. Not many vocalists can pull that off. Many would try to imitate an old-time blues singer or else abandon the blues flavor entirely (that's how I picture Patricia Barber approaching the task). But Heap makes the tradition her modeling clay. Of course this is also true of Jeff's guitar playing -- he merges the song's antique bluesey feel with his exotic, futuristic flights (his sound often reminds me of a rocket taking off.) So the two of them make a good pair. At first I thought Jeff's sucession of female collaborators - including Heap, Imelda May, Jennifer Batten, Joss Stone, and bassists Tal Wilkenfeld and Rhonda Smith - was a gimmick. But in each case he comes up with an original and intriguing cross-breeding of styles. Perhaps gender doesn't matter with the non-singers. Still, there's a chemistry there that's important given that guitar rock tends to be a guy-thing. I am really impressed by his good judgment in finding collaborators. To me, Eric Clapton will always be the ultimate blues guitarist from Cream via John Mayall, and Jimmy Page will always be Led Zep. Jeff Beck is the only one of the three ex-Yardbirds whose current stuff eclipses his youthful exploits. While EC tries his hand at 'Autumn Leaves' Jeff Beck is still frolicking in the bursting buds of Spring.