It was no accident that three of the greatest British guitarists of the twentieth century were all in the Yardbirds, the seminal British blues band, though not all at the same time. Eric Clapton came and went first, his blues purist instincts rebelling at performing “For Your Love,” with its bongos and harpsichord. Jeff Beck came next, and his hot-rod guitar playing drove the hits “Shapes of Things” and “Over Under Sideways Down.” Jimmy Page later joined Beck and stayed on after Beck split, though only until he got an idea for a band that someone said would go down like a lead zeppelin.
Clapton is perhaps the most overtly soulful of the three, and the only one who sings; Page is perhaps the most overtly virtuosic, and the one who needs a lead singer to front his band. Beck, however, has tried singers–the overly anemic Keith Relf in the Yardbirds and the overly charismatic Rod Stewart in the first Jeff Beck Group–and he’s found he can get along without them very well. So well that he’s won eight Grammy Awards: one for best pop collaboration with vocals, one for best pop instrumental, and six for best rock instrumental.
It’s easy to understand why he wins. No one can play the electric guitar like Jeff Beck. I just spent a happy morning watching live videos from across his career with an emphasis on his recent work, and they were truly mind blowing. Beck can play anything from heavy metal to funk jazz, from throbbing electronica to sweeping arias to a searing cover of Lennon and McCartney’s “A Day in the Life.” With nothing but a Stratocaster, a whammy bar, and his bare hands–Beck eschews a pick–he can do anything from soaring runs to slashing chords to sweet finger-picking to near noise to sounds that seem to come from the throat of an angel. And it’s nearly impossible to tell how he does it.
When he comes to the Michigan Theater on March 31, Beck won’t be playing metal, jazz, or electronica. He’ll be doing something completely different: going back to his first love–Les Paul–and taking a singer and her band along with him. The singer is Imelda May, a sultry Irish chanteuse with a taste for rockabilly, and the band is the Imelda May Band, a turbocharged outfit with a hot horn section and a tight rhythm section. Together, they’ll be performing “A Celebration of Les Paul,” including the signature tunes the master recorded with his wife, Mary Ford: “How High The Moon,” “Vaya Con Dios” and “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” plus such golden oldies as “Walking in the Sand.”