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Published Thursday, April 1, 1999,
in the Akron Beacon Journal.

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Jeff Beck lets music do the talking

  • Guitar virtuoso's show in Akron is like watching an instructor give clinic

    Beacon Journal staff writer

    Last night, E.J. Thomas Hall was ruled by a man who has reinvented sound. He is a musician who plays guitar with sublime abandon -- an artist who expands the limits of what can be done with six strings and electricity. He is a legend who needs no introduction: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you former Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel!

    OK, OK, OK, it actually wasn't Nigel on stage. It was actually Jeff Beck, although sometimes it's hard to tell them apart. However, there are at least two important differences between these two ax slingers: Nigel Tufnel never made an electronica record, and Jeff Beck is probably the finest pure musician I've ever seen in my entire life.

    ``When he's on,'' Jimmy Page once said, ``Beck is probably the best there is.'' He was definitely on last night, much to the pleasure of the 2,500 ``metallectuals'' who classify this 54-year-old Brit as a minor deity.

    Beck is currently touring in support of his album Who Else?, his attempt at fusing emotive blues riffing with synthetic dance music. It's probably the best (and certainly the most innovative) record Beck has released since he made Blow By Blow with Sir George Martin in 1975. It's not the first time he's expressed interest in artificial instrumentation -- Jan Hammer played synthesizer on Beck's '76 Wired LP -- but this material embraces electronica principles with a deeper seriousness.

    The key to Beck's style is that he doesn't use a guitar pick, so his harmonics and guitar tones seem richer than most of his peers'. He can play fast when he wants to, but he usually doesn't -- instead, he fosters an expansive, elusive sound that's still pretty heavy. Eddie Van Halen's guitar shrieks and wails, but Beck's guitar moans.

    Dressed plainly (black T-shirt, black jeans), he opened with What Mama Said, the first cut off his new album. Throughout the set, he never spoke. His songs have no lyrics. In some ways, it's almost like attending a guitar clinic, because the visual emphasis is totally focused on Beck's fingers. It's actually more ``impressive'' than it is ``entertaining.'' The crowd did not stand during any of the songs; it would rise after every blistering solo, clap like lunatics and then politely sit back down.

    One of the most compelling moments of the evening was when Beck covered the Beatles' A Day In The Life, carrying the melody on his guitar. What was so intriguing is that it actually made me think about the words more than normal. Beck's instrumentals make an audience very conscious of a familiar song's message, because they create the same feelings in a nonverbal sense. This was a thinking man's rock show.

    The night's most pleasant surprise was opening act Paul Thorn, an unknown singer-songwriter from Tupelo, Miss., who utterly charmed everyone in the building. A former professional boxer, Thorn is almost more funny than he is musical; he sang about Viagra, a girl who cheated on him 151 times, a Jehovah's Witness who became a stripper, and what it was like to lose a fight to Roberto Duran. Thorn will never be famous, but he probably should be.

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