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Jeff Beck: Truth & Beck-Ola

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Next to Hendrix, Clapton, and Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck stands as something of an underdog in the pantheon of guitar gods. But these early solo efforts, now reissued by Epic, remain classics of the quirkiest kind. On 1968’s Truth we hear a 23-year-old Rod Stewart wailing the blues, giving Robert Plant a run for his money. And we hear Beck displaying some of the most sonically radical guitar work of the era. The affinity with Jimmy Page is quite striking. In particular, the vocal/guitar call-and-response episodes on "Let Me Love You" and "Rock My Plimsoul" predate Led Zeppelin’s "The Lemon Song" by more than a year. Beck’s solo acoustic rendition of "Greensleeves" also portends folkish excursions by Page that would soon crop up on nearly every Zep record. Overall, however, the emphasis is on hard-driving blues-rock, with enough curiosities thrown in to make it totally unique. The psychedelic instrumental "Beck’s Bolero" (by Jimmy Page, as a matter of fact) remains a delight, as does "Ol’ Man River," with an uncredited Keith Moon on timpani.

Beck-Ola followed a year later. Only half an hour long, the record is less substantial but also features the strong interplay of Beck and Stewart, with Ron Wood again on bass, Tony Newman replacing Mick Waller on drums, and Nicky Hopkins remaining on piano. The record begins with — what else? — an Elvis tune, "All Shook Up," and goes on to include yet another, "Jailhouse Rock," taken at an in-your-face, half-time tempo. The group’s trademark blues-rock returns on "Plynth (Water Down the Drain)" and "The Hangman’s Knee," while "Spanish Boots" and "Rice Pudding" are based on crushing riffs that surely qualify as some of the earliest heavy metal on record. In the middle of it all appears Hopkins’s quaint, piano-based folk melody, "Girl from Mill Valley."

These post-Yardbirds, pre-Faces outings are vital documents in the history of British hard rock, and they also stand up as essential examples of Beck’s guitar style. There’s little here that would seem to predict Beck’s turn to jazz-rock fusion a mere six or seven years later. But in terms of how Beck uses the guitar to lead a band, there’s a lot of continuity between these and future efforts. Curious as to what the elusive six-string hero sounds like lately? If you’re in New York, catch him at Roseland on March 22.

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