Photo by Paul Haggard.
It’s always a bit strange and nervy to be hugging the shadows in “enemy” territory, but there I was — a guitar journalist at a Jeff Beck show during the master guitarist’s, er, “vacation” from being a so-called guitar nerd.
"Rather than do a guitar-nerd album, I thought, 'If I don't change course now, I'll be stuck with that Guitar World thing, and that's not where I come from at all,'" Beck exclaimed to an early listening party for his latest album, Loud Hailer [Atco]. "Even though I've been on about 400 of their front covers, I'm not that person."
What this statement meant for people like me is that no guitar-magazine interviews are currently being granted, and getting into the Jeff Beck/Buddy Guy show at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium necessitated a little help from concert promoter Live Nation. Well, I was also there to interview Beck’s rhythm guitarist, Carmen Vandenberg, and she was a great help getting me backstage access for our talk.
As GP readers are well aware, Beck has been on our cover numerous times, and, throughout the years, he has been extremely gracious at sharing knowledge about all things guitar with us. So, if the 72-year-old 6-string genius wants to get off the guitar-nerd bus for a spell, I guess we should be considerate and honor his wishes.
Furthermore, even though I was constantly looking over my shoulder to avoid the Guitar-Nerd Police while I was in the building, I still had a total blast at the show.
It all started, as I said, with Carmen, and she is everything the editor of a guitar magazine wants to see in an interview subject. She’s a joyous pixie who buzzes with energy and enthusiasm. She was grateful and honored and thrilled to be interviewed by Guitar Player. She was incredibly sharing and unguarded with information. She handed me her Strat while describing working with Fender to craft a slightly thinner neck. She even wore a San Francisco Giants cap as I talked to her, because a trip to a game at AT&T Park the previous night — as well as a meeting with Giants pitcher and guitarist Jake Peavy—had the British musician digging the Orange & Black. The entire interview was an awesome experience. (Look for Michael Ross’ comprehensive interview with Carmen in a future issue of Guitar Player.)
Carmen Vandenberg. Photo by Michael Molenda
After that, I quietly sauntered from the backstage dressing rooms to the concert hall — taking care to not even peek if Mr. Beck was around (though I did see his incredible bassist Rhonda Smith in the hallway) — where Buddy Guy’s band was going through its soundcheck. I slipped out for some dinner before the show without the Guitar-Geek Police even getting close to me. Whew.
At show time, I was risking discovery again, because Guitar Player art director Paul Haggard was on hand to shoot some photos of Carmen. Happily, the tour manager set everything up without tipping off the Geek Authorities. Also on hand were guitarist Gretchen Menn and my old friend and Beck fan Mark Davis. Now emboldened and shielded by a “crew,” I figured I could enjoy the show without worrying much about being exposed as a “guitar magazine interloper.”
At 80 years old, Buddy Guy is both a national treasure and a mind blower. What energy! After the requisite “Please welcome to the stage…” intro by keyboardist Marty Sammons, Guy immediately ripped into a high-volume fusillade of shredding that just might have turned Yngwie Malmsteen to dust. Wow. For the next song, Guy said, “People say I play way too loud — especially in San Francisco [pause for cheers]. But I tell you, I can play so funky that you can smell it.” Then, he turned down his Stratocaster to play the most beautifully soft and melodic lines.
He was full of tricks, too — my favorite being his “wiping my butt with Clapton” shtick where he rubbed his Strat across his backside to “swipe” the lick for Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” He also played his guitar with a drumstick and silenced a cacophony of feedback by casually tossing a hand towel over the neck. You don’t see showmanship like this very much these days. It’s a lost art, and I was seeing a master here. Guy called up his old friend Carlos Santana for a number, and it was obviously a big moment for the San Francisco audience, but the guitar thrills were rather muted. Santana never found his footing (strange, as he’s usually such a badass), and the gentleman that is Buddy Guy did not viciously hand Carlos his head in a cutting contest. It was all very polite and courteous—which made for a period of enjoyable fizzles, rather than true fireworks.
Beck is Beck, of course, and watching him is like seeing some medieval wizard conjure magic. His tone, phrasing, and control of his Strat’s Volume and Tone knobs are almost mystical. But there was a strange dichotomy to the show. His collaboration with the young Vandenberg and vocalist Rosie Bones churned Loud Hailer into a topical, political, and punky opus that’s exciting, raw, urgent, modern sounding, and quite welcome in a world where things are not as brilliant as they could be.
Left to Right: Jeff Beck, bassist Rhonda Smith, vocalist Rosie Bones. Photo by Paul Haggard
Bones’ stage presence is certainly based in that urban-influenced, 20-something media filter, but she morphs her dance moves, demeanor, and delivery into a package that’s uniquely hers. It’s powerful, it’s a joy to experience, and it definitely appears to energize Beck — which makes it baffling why the set is split between the fresh and unfettered Bones and journeyman blues shouter Jimmy Hall. The former Wet Willie frontman has the chops and a great range, but Hall also transforms the show into a conventional blues-rock revue. I almost wasn’t hearing Beck at that point, because the “vibe shift” was so unsettling to me. I would have loved it if the flow had expanded on the youthful, raw, and quirky energy by allowing Bones to interpret songs such as Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” THAT would have been something. But, last I heard, I wasn’t even supposed to be slinking around the venue, much less question Beck’s live-performance strategy.
When the show ended, I decided to take my bliss gracefully out into the cool San Francisco night. Because of my time with Carmen, Beck’s tour manager provided me a “Working” pass, and I probably could have used it to slip past the backstage guards and plant myself in front of Mr. Beck while all the VIP ticket holders took their expensive selfies. But a good spy knows when to get out of the joint, and, anyway, my mom taught me not to be a jerk and abuse someone’s courtesy. So choosing the better part of valor, I whispered, “Goodbye, Guitar-Geek Police,” and I went in search of the perfect cup of tea in a perfect downtown café in a city that I adore…