By Mike Finkelstein
Man, oh man, oh man! When I first saw that Jeff Beck and Brian Wilson were going to tour and share the stage together on Sunday night at the Greek Theatre, I knew this promised to be one very special show. Much anticipation was in the air for this gig. We’re not often fortunate enough to see a pair of talents like these two interact live.
You might say that Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck were getting after the same vision of Americana from different angles, back in the mid- to late-sixties. It was a vision centering on simple innocent pleasures like driving old Ford hot rods and being at the beach with girls galore. In about 1966, Wilson and the Beach Boys were making the beach and surfing into an iconic notion in song. Meanwhile, Jeff Beck, like many similar English blokes of his time, was learning the ins and outs of stylized hot-rodded electric guitar in the epic British blues/pop band the Yardbirds. But he was listening to Beach Boys albums, too.
In 1966 the Beach Boys released the tremendously influential album Pet Sounds. People like the Beatles raved about it and the bar was raised for innovative recording techniques and pushing the limit with bizarre but imaginative ideas in the studio. Though it never got above Number 10 in the U.S., Pet Sounds was a big hit in the U.K. and particularly with the Beatles.
Save for a few greatest hits before and after, Brian Wilson’s set centered on playing Pet Sounds in its entirety. Back in the day, bands didn’t really try to recreate the studio polish and effects. But these are different times and Wilson has been performing with the Wondermints for several years now. The nine of them were nothing short of amazing, as they proceeded to account for every vocal nuance, every English horn, glockenspiel, banjo, 12-string guitar, theremin, baritone guitar, or bass harmonica part that was necessary to sound just like the record. The vocal precision was scary. I can only imagine what it must sound like to Wilson himself when he hears the Wondermints reproducing his late brothers’ (Carl and Dennis) vocal parts.
Wilson, who has a history of coming in and out of the onstage moment, seemed to be all there for this huge show. Sitting at a big white Steinway grand piano he was present the whole way Sunday, thanked the audience warmly and kept the show moving at a nice brisk clip. This was a back to the roots show for Wilson. Original Beach Boy David Marks was there (he sang on “Sloop John B”), as were Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin (he sang “Sail on Sailor,” and “Wild Honey”).
Pet Sounds is a most interesting set of songs. Though it’s a classic album, it isn’t a big-sounding, anthemic production. The songs are often introspective, subdued, and detached lyrically. The instrumentals don’t feature the bravado one usually expects from surf music. Instead they go into jazzy minor modes that slow things down and turn them inside out. The subtlety and movement away from the unexpected is the charm of Pet Sounds. Songs like “Caroline, No,” “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” “That’s Not Me,” “Don’t Talk, Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” “I Know There’s an Answer,” and “I’m Waiting For The Day,” go far out of the realm of pop songs. In their time, they gave other prominent pop artists a license to deal with deeper issues. To call it influential would be an understatement.
Of course, Pet Sounds also features a bundle of the most popular Beach Boys favorites ever like “California Girls,” “Good Vibrations,” “God Only Knows Where I’d Be Without You,” “Sloop John B,” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” To hear all of this so beautifully recreated at the Greek was a little bit of magic and the crowd ate it up gleefully, giving Wilson a standing ovation at the end. After a brief string of four Beach Boys hits, “Good Vibrations,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “I Get Around” and “Fun, Fun, Fun,” it was intermission.
Suffice it to say that Jeff Beck walks an original line through popular music. Having been through pop stardom, then rock stardom, he is now privileged (and self-effacingly admits it) to play with the cream of the musical crop and still sounds utterly unto himself. And doing it at age 69(!). He still has the same basic jet-black shag hairstyle, and he showed up in shiny black pants with a rhinestone wristband and sleeveless shirt/vest.
On Sunday, Beck’s band featured a lovely young violinist, Maggie Ball, and beautiful young bassist named Rhonda Smith, as well as guitarist Nicholas Meyer, and drummer Jonathon Joseph. Usually, Beck performs with a keyboardist as a foil. Because he has been exploring some very lush guitar tones of late, the violin and second guitar were actually a wise choice to lend a lot of atmosphere to the mix.
Just playing his jazz/rock fusion style isn’t the whole story. Yes, his bands are comprised of top-notch players, but they are all somewhere around half his age and often they are beautiful young women. It’s clever to find and enlist such beauty and musicianship into the band. You bet it draws an audience in! Then, the talent proceeds to sell the idea on a very high level.
Beck’s playing is flashy but in a very musical way. The flashiness always augments but never overtakes the focus of his instrumental voice. His approach is to squeeze every sound he can hear in his head out of his guitar. A Fender Stratocaster is his usual ax of choice, as he loves to wrestle with the vibrato arm. On Sunday, we could hear all the strings wrenching dynamically, one string at a time. With a distorted signal and in the sweet spot of sustained overdrive, he had the Strat screaming, squealing, pinging, roaring, and doing all of this on a dime. It’s a processed sound but it’s also quite unique. Nobody sounds close to him now.
Jeff Beck’s setlists are getting more varied. For this show he opened with “Eternity’s Breath/Stratus,” in a classic jazz/rock groove. He soon covered Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing,” with a flamenco flavored intro, as well as the tantalizing plodding classic, “You Know, You Know,” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He also gave us his signature instrumental version of the Beatles’ “A Day In The Life.” Beck’s more recent “Yemin,” shined with Nicolas Meyer and violinist Lizzie Ball adding a lot of desert atmosphere in the evening air.
About halfway through Beck’s set there came a series of videotaped clips of Beck showing us his beautifully garaged collection of hot rods and taking them out for a spin. You just knew this was leading to the moment we were anticipating, when Brian Wilson (the guy who wrote “Little Deuce Coupe”) came on stage, accompanied by five of the Wondermints. Would you believe they proceeded to lead off with “Our Prayer,” perfectly nailing all of the soaring harmonic beauty of the recording? Many of us would never have expected to see it done live. This led into the legendary “Surf’s Up” getting the Beck instrumental treatment.
Perhaps the highlight of the show came when Beck, a rather mercurial player in the context of a simple gig, got right into the moment on “Surfin’ USA.” Words cannot adequately describe how this one concise guitar solo put the whole thing into context. The song was just too close to Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” in its day, and it got the Beach Boys successfully sued by CB. But it has always been quintessential beach music, and the guitar solo on the original was a bit ordinary, also derivative of Chuck Berry.
Beck took it into the ozone on Sunday night with a hot-rod solo of epic proportions. He redefined the guitar break of that song, brought it into the new millennium. The solo didn’t last long but Beck put his seal on it like few could hope to do. A panting, wheezing, spinning, screaming, and ecstatic runaway freight train of a solo it was. He was obviously giddy to get the chance to nail it like that right next to Brian Wilson.
In the end Brian and Jeff only shared the stage for about 20 minutes but it was truly something special. And, for those 12 bars they ascended the heights we all knew they could reach. Not too shabby at all, from two guys whose average age is 70. This was a great night of seminal Americana, from both sides of the Atlantic. Fun, fun, fun.
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Photos by Bonnie Perkinson.
To read more reviews and posts by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.