Former guitar god Jeff Beck returns with yet another live album full of the expected, augmented by two studio tracks that defy conventional logic in their abject atrociousness.
As a pop musician, Jeff Beck has always seemed to suffer from being labeled a musician’s musician. Often listed third in the triumvirate of legendary guitarists that passed through the Yardbirds, Beck has ultimately proven far more stylistically innovative and relevant than either Clapton or Page, but given the commercial success achieved by these two post-Yardbirds they ultimately end up with the lion’s share of the accolades and credit for launching the wild aspirations of countless wannabe guitar heroes.
That Beck isn’t often mentioned in the same breath is certainly borderline criminal, he hasn’t necessarily made it easy for the general listening public to latch onto him in the same way Clapton did through Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos and solo or Page through Led Zeppelin. While he initially followed up his tenure in the Yardbirds with several successful classic Jeff Beck Group recordings, several of which featured a young Rod Stewart on lead vocals. But rather than following that particular muse to the top of the charts, Beck became more enamored of technological and stylistic innovations that would see him exploring the guitar’s potential in ways Hendrix and the like had only hinted at.
While certainly a technical virtuoso and undeniably gifted guitarist, Beck has always seemed more interested in getting new and different sounds out of his instrument than in flashy, recognizably blues-based playing. Because of this, his approach proved a natural fit to the fusion boom of the early-to-mid-‘70s. Since then, he’s been stalwartly plying his trade, having long since left behind any sort of pop star aspirations in favor of sonic explorations with a host of like-minded, insanely talented players.
The problem with this, however, is that these performers are so tuned into the intricacies of the music that one performance deviates little from the next. Case in point being the nearly identical performance of “A Day in the Life” that appeared on one of the many live albums Beck has released in recent years, Performing This Week…Live At Ronnie Scott’s. An almost note-for-note recreation here, the only difference seems to be the personnel, players who manage to achieve a sound and feel almost identical to those on the aforementioned live date. This lack of spontaneity and musical homogeny thus makes one performance virtually interchangeable with another, ultimately negating the need for yet another live document.
That having been said, Live + does deviate slightly in format in that it features a handful of vocal performances mixed in with Beck’s typical guitar rock fusion. But even these selections, nearly all veritable pop standards or, at the very least, bar band staples, make the group sound little more than an absurdly talented cover band playing the hell out of these songs in front of a mildly appreciative audience. On the long since overdone “A Change Is Gonna Come", vocalist Jimmy Hall delivers an appropriately soulful and incendiary performance that proves a match for the equally virtuosic playing around him. But despite a few asides, ad libs and vocal flourishes, Hall brings little to the song that hasn’t been heard before.
The same applies to their reading of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition", here given the stuttering funk rock workout treatment that can be heard in nearly any local bar any night of the week. Despite their not bringing anything new to these tunes (exception going to “Little Wing", here performed as a stately power ballad), it’s clear they are all enjoying themselves and giving the appreciative audience what they want, that being nothing they haven’t already heard a dozen times before.
But then of course there is the “+” in Live +’s title that must be addressed. So dreadful are these two recordings that they bring down all of the preceding several notches simply through their having been included on the same album. “Tribal” is a disjointed mess of the titular style of drumming, frantic female shrieking and Beck’s random assortment of guitar effects deployed to varying degrees of success an annoyance.
Its closest comparison would be the noisier moments of Bowie’s ill-advised move towards electronic music on ‘97’s Earthling. So terrible are these performances it makes the listener second guess their overall opinion of Beck, questioning whether or not he has long since lost his sense of what is good in favor of what sounds interesting. These are throwback sounds that deserve to be thrown back.
Were it not for these atrocious additions, Live + would have been merely another live document in what is proving to be an ever-increasing number from Beck and company, nearly all of which are virtually interchangeable. Instead, Live +, thanks to its +, is an unlistenable abomination that will have long-time Beck fans clamoring for their worn-out copies of Truth and Blow By Blow to help remind them why they’ve remained such ardent fans.