Jeff Beck - guitar; Wilbur Bascomb - bass; Max Middleton - keyboards; Bernard Purdie - drums
After redefining electric guitar during his tenure in The Yardbirds, numerous outstanding permutations of The Jeff Beck Group, and a brief experiment with ex-Vanilla Fudge/Cactus alumni in Beck, Bogart & Appice, Jeff Beck disappeared from the public eye. When he returned in 1975 with his new album, Blow By Blow, it was immediately apparent that Beck was taking an entirely different approach. The album, produced by the legendary George Martin at his AIR Studios, was strictly an instrumental affair with the music clearly heading in a jazz-fusion direction. The results were nothing short of spectacular, gaining Beck a new legion of fans, and Blow By Blow would sail up the charts, soon to become one of the best selling instrumental albums of all time.
When Beck took this exciting new material on the road, he assembled a stellar new quartet featuring the outstanding rhythm section of bassist Wilbur Bascomb and drummer Bernard Purdie. He wisely retained the services of keyboardist Max Middleton, the only mainstay from his previous groups. Middleton's jazzy keyboard parts complimented much of Beck's finest work from the early 1970s, and in this new band he inspired Beck to reach new levels of sophistication. Beck's explorations into this new genre of music were immediately distinctive and would in retrospect prove to be the commercial peak of a long and illustrious career. This recording, from when Jeff Beck and The Mahavishnu Orchestra took to the road together, captures this new era perfectly. Much of the Blow By Blow album is here when it was fresh and new. Even when Beck dips back into his catalogue, older songs are given an altogether new instrumental treatment, bringing out delightful nuances and making them entirely new experiences.
This set, recorded at St. Louis' Ambassador Theater, was the final night of the first leg of the North American Blow By Blow Tour, when both Jeff Beck and John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra toured the continent together, providing audiences with a remarkable double bill of cutting edge jazz/rock fusion. Although not without a few dropouts on the master cassette, this recording captures Beck and one of his most revered bands at a peak moment in time. Following this performance, Beck would return to England for two weeks before embarking on the second leg of the tour at the end of the month.
Following some brief tune-ups, this fiery set kicks off with the humorously titled "Constipated Duck." Despite a brief cut in the master, this is a great opener as it showcases a wide range of guitar sounds and techniques. Beck vacillates between screaming psychosis and lyrical beauty, all in the space of four minutes. The set then continues with his infectious instrumental take on The Beatles classic, "She's A Woman," featuring Beck playing his guitar through a talk-box, a gadget that he helped introduce to a legion of guitar players. (The way this effect works is the electric guitar signal is diverted from the amplifier speaker to a special hose-like conduit. The hose directs the sound into the guitarist's mouth. Guitarists move their mouth as if they are speaking to change the tone and nuance of the sound, which is then picked up by the microphone.) Next up is one of the standout tracks from the new album, "Freeway Jam," which would soon become a ubiquitous radio staple. This too has a brief cut in the master, but it's a wonderful performance regardless. Following a brief drum interlude from Bernard Purdie, the song segues directly into a spine tingling version of one of Beck's finest older compositions, "Definitely Maybe." This is a prime example of the incredible chemistry between Beck and Middleton and it features some of Beck's delicate and beautiful slide guitar.
At this point, Beck does a two-song tribute to Stevie Wonder, beginning with an all-instrumental take on "Superstition," where he again uses the talk-box to allow his guitar to take the lead vocal. A beautiful introspective take on "Cause We've Ended As Lovers" follows. Beginning with a lovely keyboard intro sequence from Middleton, Beck's interpretation of this ballad remains one of his most beautiful displays of emotionally charged guitar playing ever, and this version is certainly a highlight of the performance. His guitar pleads, weeps, wails, and sweetly sighs, revealing Beck's astounding control of dynamics.
For the last several songs of the set, Beck pulls out all the stops beginning with "AIR Blower." A sizzling take on Stanley Clarke's "Power" follows, before the group tackles the old Rough And Ready album track, "Got The Feeling," here revamped in a new instrumental arrangement. All of these numbers feature blazing guitar work and illuminate what has always made Beck so distinctive. While plenty of other guitarists can play fast, Beck can take one note, bend it, sustain it, and add harmonics and distortion like no other. To conclude the proceedings, Beck delivers the funkified frenzy of "You Know What I Mean," the classic opening track from Blow By Blow. This provides yet another prime example of Beck utilizing the entire guitar, often changing the tone and timbre several times within the course of a song. For the encore, the group eases into "Diamond Dust," which rapidly builds up momentum before bringing this performance to a close.
Throughout this performance, Beck's band creates a stately sounding fusion of rock, jazz, soul and blues, bringing Beck's music to a new level of sophistication, while retaining the volatile quality that has always infused his guitar playing. Incorporating a diverse range of musical styles, seasoned with tasteful unpredictability, this performance is a textbook example of what makes any musician truly distinctive. Much like iconic figures such as Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane or Miles Davis, it's not so much the choice of material played, but how immersed the musician is within the context of the music. Here, Beck is deeply submerged and this music ultimately reflects his own volatile and unpredictable personality.
-Written by Alan Bershaw