Eric Clapton & Jeff Beck at Madison Square Garden
Eric Clapton & Jeff Beck
Madison Square Garden
New York, New York
February 19th, 2010
Eric Clapton was the perfect host during his appearance with Jeff Beck February 19th at Madison Square Garden. The man once likened to God could not have been more gracious had he played a more formal role of master of ceremonies. In his deference to Beck, Slowhand seemed intent on giving El Becko, his successor in The Yardbirds back in 1965, a chance to strut his stuff on one of the biggest stages in the world.
To his enormous credit, Jeff Beck made the most of his opportunity, swaggering out on stage as if he could not wait to prove how he's maintained such a fervent following over the years, even as he's managed to remain under the radar of the mainstream. This concert, the second of two nights Clapton and Beck appeared in New York to begin their mini-tour, was not the galvanizing performance EC participated in with Steve Winwood approximately two winters ago. But then, these two are not comparably complementary talents; Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton are two extraordinary guitarists with markedly different styles and overall approaches to music.
This show, split like its predecessor into separate sets by the headliners and a collaborative conclusion, might have seemed like a microcosm of their career paths. Clapton's self-professed purism compelled him to join John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, while Beck's innovative inclinations, including use of feedback, elevated The Yardbirds above their British beat group contemporaries. Clapton's tenures in Cream and Blind Faith preceded his greatest work under the nom de guitare Derek and The Dominos (with the significant assistance of Duane Allman) and subsequent solo work that has been more often marked by the safety of compromise than deeply felt inspiration. It was no surprise to hear him place "I've Got a Rock and Roll Heart," currently the theme to his cell phone advertising campaign, smack in the middle of his set.
Upon the dissolution of The Yardbirds, Beck spent years charting an erratic course at the head of his own groups (the original one of which was the template for Led Zeppelin, which included a young Rod Stewart) before he formulated his own style of jazz-rock fusionthe cornerstone of his forty-plus minute set this winter night. A new rhythm section consisting of former Prince sidewoman Rhonda Smithshe of an absolutely lubricious soloand drummer Narada Michael Walden (who played on Beck's second George Martin-produced project, Wired (Epic, 1976) brought a much funkier approach to "Led Boots" and "Big Block" than his recent lineups. But that pair, along with ever-unobtrusive keyboard standby Jason Rebello, were also deft in meshing with the 30-piece orchestra on some previews of the forthcoming Rhino studio album Emotion and Commotion, including "Mna na hEireann" and "Nessun Dorma."
At the point Beck hit a resoundingly sweet note interwoven with the strings near the conclusion of Jeff Buckley's "Corpus Christi Carol," the guitarist had been prowling the stage for about 20 minutes as if he owned it. Confined to clubs and middle-sized theaters on most of his tours over the years, Beck conducted himself like he'd long been acclimated to 20,000 seat venues packed with adoring fans as he opened for his British contemporary
Beck displayed his customarily idiosyncratic logic on "Stratus" and Mahavishnu Orchestra's "Eternity's Breath," seemingly only as a precursor to the wilder and more raw sounds he wrung from his axe when he came out to become Clapton's lead guitarist about two hours later. Meanwhile, his playing with the orchestra only reaffirmed his affinity for melody and the dynamics of a personal style that contains as much tenderness as reckless abandon.
Would that some of Beck's adventuresome approach rubbed off on Clapton (and it may eventually occur if the two play more shows together than just the six they are doing during this winter). It's giving the benefit of the doubt, and perhaps deservedly so, to the archetypal guitar hero to say he played so carefully in order not to distract any attention from his comrade-in-guitars. Not that Beck's performance, alone or alongside Clapton, would've been any less electrifying, but "Driftin'" kicked off an unplugged half of a set during which the guitar icon sounded distant from the emotional core of his music in direct proportion to the depth with which his counterpart was engaged, committed and enjoying himself tremendously.