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Eric Clapton & Jeff Beck at Madison Square Garden

Doug Collette BY

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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 fusion—the cornerstone of his forty-plus minute set this winter night. A new rhythm section consisting of former Prince sidewoman Rhonda Smith—she of an absolutely lubricious solo—and 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.

The emotional detachment was especially apparent when Beck joined Clapton, who had just navigated his band through all-too-casual turns of "Key to the Highway" and "Nobody Knows When You're Down and Out" and teased the audience with an intro to Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" that drummer Steve Gadd eventually made memorable by his deft reggae rhythm work. Beck stepped into his role as sideman with a vengeance, albeit a gleeful one, parlaying the dirtiest guitaring of the night as well as yet another reminder how he can cut to the quick of a ballad; his rendering of the melody to "Moon River" left Clapton's vocal superfluous. Clapton had offered a fairly extended solo on J.J. Cale's "Cocaine" to close his own set and in those few moments, any of those present in the Garden understood how he had elevated himself to his lofty position 40-plus years ago—the simplicity, passion and purity that distinguished his playing was unmistakable.

But Jeff Beck commands those virtues and then some—his unerring instinct for noise as marked as that for harmony. Which is why covering Sly and The Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher" was undoubtedly his idea; it allowed him to riff violently on the refrain and grind out the syncopation on the choruses. It was as celebratory in its own way as "A Day in the Life" had been dramatic earlier in the evening, the one point perhaps where the stings and brass were superfluous. Beck has taken regular (and even more highly-charged) turns through the Beatles tunes over the years, since covering the songs for a tribute to Sir George Martin in 1998. Here Beck displayed the deceptive nonchalance that informs his guitar hero posing and makes his histrionics worth emulating. This man doesn't take himself seriously—only his playing.

Clapton and Beck encored with Robert Johnson's "Crossroads." The former could not help but sing with the depth of feeling usually relegated to his guitar work, while Beck shot off notes carrying a bittersweet edge. It was the most complete collaboration of the two, apart from a vicious take on Cream's "Outside Woman Blues." Both numbers allowed the principals to exhibit their relative strengths.

As the musicians left the stage as sated as the audience, Beck casually tossed a handful of the baby powder with which he anoints his hands with into the air, and it became a vision of something like magic dust akin to the spell he had woven over the crowd with his unusual musicianship. It's a credit to Clapton's magnanimity that, swiftly exiting stage left, he did nothing to obscure his friend's triumphant departure.

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