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Jeff Beck: After the Drought

By Mike Joyce
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, March 12, 1999

  Gigs to Watch

    Jeff Beck Jeff Beck unexpectedly mixes techno, ambient and blues sounds. (By Olaf Heine/Epic)
If "Who Else!" the new album by Jeff Beck, provokes a lot of people to ask "Who's that?" no one will be happier than the legendary British guitar ace himself.

Calling from a London rehearsal hall where he's preparing for a U.S. tour that opens at the 9:30 club Monday night, Beck explains that the album's surprising mix of techno, ambient, ethnic and blues sounds was the result of "all kinds of weirdness happening between 1995 and 1999."

After his last U.S. tour in 1995, Beck suffered a creative drought that ended only after a recent tour of Italy and Germany. When he got back to England and began listening to concert tapes, he was stunned by what he heard. "It was old-fashioned, I have to tell you. Not because of the music, but the instrumentation. I thought, 'This is really terrible. This can't be released.' . . . It was like a really bad studio album – there was no kick in it."

Retreating to what he calls an "imaginary weld shop," the guitarist began to refashion the music from the bottom up as if he were doing a major overhaul on one of the many hot rods he garages at his home in Surrey. In some cases, "there's only about one-tenth of the song left," he explains. "I'd strip out the tune, the bridge and the chorus. So we've got Jennifer [former Michael Jackson guitarist Jennifer Batten] screaming away, me doing the solo, and the drum groove kicking in. But the song is missing; it's gone. That's what I wanted. I want to go as flat-out as it could be."

At least for a while. A few tracks into the all-instrumental album the techno influence gives way to a languid, brush-stroked blues, then a haunting reprise of Donal Lunny's Celtic ballad, "Declan."

The changes of pace weren't afterthoughts, Beck says, nor was the album's strong emphasis on bottleneck guitar. "I found the bottleneck sound more lyrical," he explains. "It just has a creamier sound, especially on the ballads, and I love slow blues, especially with brushes. You can go anywhere you want to and not have to wait for five verses of 'My mama done told me.'"

Besides, he says, he didn't want the album's more modern influences, inspired in part by rave club rhythms and the music of Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers, to sound too trendy or predictable. Says the 55-year-old guitarist: "I didn't want to lose the barroom attitude that I was brought up with."

"Who Else!" (Epic) also briefly reunites Beck with keyboardist Jan Hammer, an association which produced the 1977 jazz rock classic, "Jeff Beck With the Jan Hammer Group." Reflecting on his older recordings, Beck reports that "the most fun was working with Jan because of all the manic soloing I was able to do."

While that sense of freedom is extremely important to him, Beck is aware that it comes at a price. "It's clearly visible to me now," he says, "looking back on the success of Jimmy [Page] and Led Zeppelin as opposed to Jan Hammer, or Eric [Clapton] singing 'Layla' or some huge hit. But I never wanted that. It just wouldn't suit me somehow. I'll let them do that. If they just allow me in the back room to do my stuff, I much prefer it that way. . . . I can put my hand on my heart and say, 'I built this car or restored this house and have generally been a layabout slob.'"

And although touring prevents Beck from focusing on his real passion – working on his stable of prewar roadsters – the guitarist admits that travel does have its advantages. "I look in all the papers when I'm touring," he says. "If there's a '32 three-window coupe lying about in your garden, I'll buy it."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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