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Beck's new vision

Blues man Jeff Beck returns with psychedelia, techno, and more

By Steve Morse, Globe Staff, 03/12/99

nother Beck is hitting the road these days - not the avant-pop Beck who had the lo-fi hit ''Loser,'' but Jeff Beck, the legendary Rock Hall of Famer who has played with Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, the post-Eric Clapton Yardbirds, Stevie Wonder, and just about anyone else who has needed a little guitar flash on their records.

Beck releases a new album on Tuesday with the wry title of ''Who Else!'' It's a return to form for the enigmatic Brit, who for the past decade has churned out some offbeat albums in ''Crazy Legs'' (a tribute to rockabilly god Gene Vincent) and ''Frankie's House,'' a soundtrack for a BBC documentary on Vietnam.

The new album - preceding a tour that has already sold out the Orpheum March 20 - finds Beck exploding in many directions, befitting his versatile skills. He offers deep-fried blues, funky R&B, flat-out rock, an Irish air, Middle Eastern riffs, and his newest offshoot - techno music - which he employs with hard-hitting results on such tracks as ''THX 138,'' ''Psycho Sam,'' and ''What Mama Said.''

''Yeah, there's a little twisted insanity in there,'' Beck says of his techno forays. ''I've been listening to some pretty out stuff.''

What has most impressed him is the British techno group Prodigy. ''I tried to use some of the energy from Prodigy records,'' Beck says in a recent phone chat. ''They're so bad boy/wicked. The guy comes on with green spikes sticking out of the side of his head. They're wild, but they know how to make a record. I really took to their sound. ''

While most of the album is instrumental, the showcase song is ''Space for the Poppa,'' with Beck adding piercing guitar riffs to some spacy talking snippets from Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders.

''I wanted her somewhere on my record,'' says Beck. ''Seeing that I did a favor by playing a solo on her next record, I asked her to be on this track. I wanted a really nice, sexy voice, and she came along and did it in one take. We were originally going to keep her presence a secret, but ... now most people know that it's Chrissie Hynde.''

Another showpiece is ''Psycho Sam,'' which sounds like ''Peter Gunn'' for the '90s with its visceral guitar boogie over a world-music, Bulgarian-influenced motif, written by longtime collaborator (and keyboardist) Tony Hymas.

''Tony said, `I'll write you a Bulgarian-type chant that will go over that.' And he put this fantastic sequence in the beginning - it's almost like a Larry Graham bass-funk sequence that starts it off. And then you've got the Bulgarian, raving-house-party-type thing, which is just two overdubbed guitars.''

After Beck's induction into the Rock Hall of Fame in 1992 with the Yardbirds, he told the Globe: ''I just want to keep exploring new sounds. That's what I do.'' He did it in the '60s with a fuzz-tone-and-feedback guitar sound that made him a pioneer to be mentioned in the same breath as Jimi Hendrix. And he's still doing it on his new album, which is all over the map by today's commercial standards but serves as another example of Beck's unrestrained sonic genius.

''To make sure that people don't think I've gone off the rails, I also stuck a real blues on there,'' he says of ''Brush with the Blues,'' which sounds like something off his epic ''Beck-Ola'' album from 1969.

And, speaking of the blues, Beck's tour set will include a rendition of the Beatles' ''A Day in the Life,'' which he has transformed into a blues, backed by a computer sample of an orchestra. The version appeared on a double-CD, multi-artist compilation that Beatles producer Sir George Martin released last year as Martin's farewell to the business. (Martin played a pivotal role in Beck's career, producing Beck's famed jazz-rock fusion album, ''Blow by Blow,'' in 1975.)

Beck now has the challenge of reproducing some of his pyrotechnic guitar work in concert. ''It's an unpleasant task, but for my own part, my playing is not really tricked up or anything. The guitar is exactly what you hear,'' he says.

His new group includes drummer Steve Alexander, bassist Randy Hope-Taylor, and guitarist Jennifer Batten, the blond dynamo who was Michael Jackson's touring guitarist for five years.

''She fits in beautifully. She adopted the role of supporting MIDI guitar. That means she can almost mimic any sound on any record I had, just by working with samples,'' Beck says. ''It's becoming high art, that form of guitar playing. So if I want a Hammond organ, that's not an organ, that's a guitar. She's on the MIDI frontier. And also, when needed, she can plug in the old guitar and we can trade off solos. Whenever I need a riff and a heavy chord, she's just going to flick a switch and we're all right. It's also nice to have another guitarist who isn't trying to blow me off the stage.''

Beck is refocused on his career - and he's no longer interested in guest roles on albums by big-name artists, as he's done in the past with Stewart and Jagger. ''Without any disrespect, it's only because I didn't have much going on for myself,'' he says of such projects. ''There were great areas of flatness where I wasn't really doing much. ... I don't want to get involved with any other major album projects right now.

''I'd like to catch up with my own projects and just keep the train rolling,'' he adds. ''I feel like we just got the brakes off and are getting this thing up to steam. I want to let people know that I'm still around, although Prince - if you're listening - I could do with a couple of guest spots on your records someday. I think he's the most talented guy on the planet. ''

Beck is also happy to be back in intimate theaters like the Orpheum. Previous tours found him sharing an arena bill with Stevie Ray Vaughan, then a summer amphitheater bill with Santana in 1995.

''It's all Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's fault!'' he says. ''Emerson, Lake, and Palmer were the first people who boasted five semi-trucks and played the enormodomes,'' he adds. ''But I prefer an old-fashioned theater, where you can really feel the sound.''

This story ran on page D17 of the Boston Globe on 03/12/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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