Wednesday, August 13, 2014

ZZ Top + Jeff Beck = Guitar Nirvana

ZZ Top/Jeff Beck
The Mountain Winery
Saratoga, California
August 12, 2014

Jeff Beck started it, ZZ Top proved it, and then they consummated the marriage - the blues did have a baby, and they called it rock 'n' roll.

The sense of awe and joy was palpable in the arena. Whether it was Jeff Beck's great band smiling ear to ear at the gift of being onstage with their boss and hero, or Billy Gibbons looks of unabashed glee at having the legendarily nimble fingered Beck as his lead guitarist for his band's encores, or Beck looking incredibly proud of his young band, and also quite chuffed to be sharing the stage with classic rock's greatest 'lil old band from Texas, it was a perfect night of guitar driven rock 'n' roll.

If I've seen a better show, I'm not sure when, where, or who it may have been. Maybe it was the perfect setting at the truly awe inspiring Mountain Winery, a venue that sits about a mile high above a backdrop of beautiful Northern California - the place is a natural wonder, and the stage, lights, and sound were stupendous. But even more beautiful was watching one of the original British guitar heroes truly teaming up with one of America's greatest bands to put on a show that was simply perfect.

Jeff Beck may or may not be the greatest living guitarist, but if you said he was, few would argue. He remains a force of nature, pulling wondrous sounds from his trusty Fenders and Marshall amps - in my estimation the only guitarist with as significant a personal signature was Jimi Hendrix, who Beck quoted several times on this night, and never more brilliantly than when he and Southern soul shouter Jimmy Hall brought down the house with a blistering Little Wing. They actually even topped that moment, though, with a spellbinding take on the Sam Cooke classic, A Change Is Gonna Come - if you didn't get goose bumps from this one, you may want to check your pulse.

Beck owned the evening's first half with a soul rendering take of The Beatles' A Day In The Life. I've heard him play it a hundred times, and I'm amazed anew with each listen. On this night, Beck once again played with equal parts fury and beauty, coaxing soaring notes as if by magic. I don't know why, or what has brought Beck back into the spotlight after so many years as a relative recluse, but it's to our benefit that he has chosen to do so.

Jeff's band for this tour consists of bassist Rhonda Smith, guitarist Nicolas Meier (whose solo work is quite brilliant), drummer Jonathan Joseph, and the aforementioned Jimmy Hall.

Jimmy Hall is an astounding soul stylist, and he's retained the unbridled skills he first unleashed on audiences in the distant seventies with Southern rockers, Wet Willie. As I mentioned above, his take on Sam Cooke's soul classic, A Change Is Gonna Come, was akin to watching a miracle in action. Beck could have about anyone he wanted fronting his band and he wanted Jimmy Hall - 'nuff said. Rhonda Smith is a solid groove on bass, and delivered some nice vocal parts. Her musical marriage with stickman Joseph is sublime - not as chops heavy as past Beck bands, but a perfect choice for a rhythm section in a band that is more song based. When they locked in, you didn't get released until they released you, and you didn't mind a bit.

Especially notable in this lineup is guitarist Nicolas Meier. The Swiss born six stringer must know he's in a band with a boss who is both demanding, and a dazzling innovator, so he does his job to pristine, precise, perfection - whether he's accompanying softly on a Godin acoustic-electric, playing wistful Hendrixian rhythms on the soul train, or bashing out heavy chords through his Marshall half stack, he's supplying just what his band needs, and for a musician with skills that are quite frankly blinding to relegate himself to this position in this band speaks volumes for his superb and humble musicianship. The looks of joy on the face of this band were worth the price of admission. Were they having even more fun than the well-heeled, wine sipping  Silicon Valley crowd? Maybe.

Jeff Beck Setlist:

1.   Loaded
2.   Nine
3.   You Know You Know (Mahavishnu Orchestra cover)
4.   Yemin (Nicolas Meier)
5.   You Never Know
6.   Big Block
7.   A Day In The Life
8.   Morning Dew
9.   Why Give It Away
10.  A Change Is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke cover)
11.  Little Wing (Jimi Hendrix cover)
12.  Goin' Down
13.  Rollin' and Tumblin

The sun went down, the roadies set the stage (an incredibly appropriate and fashionable setting for rock's sharp dressed men), and from the moment the lights went down, the evening belonged to ZZ Top.

I'd call this the Goldtop Tour if I had to give it a name, and while he always has superb tone, I'm of the opinion that Billy Gibbons never sounds better than when he wields a Gibson Les Paul. Gibbons is in fantastic shape - looking great, and playing quite frankly better than I have ever heard him play. He truly proved that he is one of rock 'n' roll's greatest riff and songwriters - often not given his due, he's a recognizable as Keith when he hits any of his iconic intros. I don't know if it's the presence of Beck on this tour, but Gibbons' solos cut like knives on every tune, and he appears incredibly inspired. The tone and the touch are perfect. I keep using that word because it is the right word.

Dusty Hill has mended well from the surgery that sidelined the band for a few dates earlier in the summer, and his subtle mastery of the Fender four string is as big a part of the indefinable ZZ Top sound. His voice is in great shape, and he looked like he was having the time of his life as a bashed his strings and belted out his blues. There is no going through the motions on this tour - this is currently one of the planet's greatest power trios.

Frank Beard. He should be on everyone's list of favorite drummer. He's a lot like Stones stickman Charlie Watts - neither is particularly fancy, but with either taken out of the equation, their respective bands would simply not be even remotely the same bands. Again and again he kept stealing my eyes from the front of the stage flash, and with every beat he drove this group like the best pilot in any man's air force.

And oh yeah, the songs. The setlist (see below) is filled with platinum classics, but recent catalog adds such as Chartreuse, Flying High, and I Gotsa Get Paid stand proudly beside anything the band has done. Perhaps it's the humor and the image, but this band has never gotten their due as songsmiths, and they are every bit as great as America classics like Petty, and Fogerty. Simply the best that this continent has to offer (So then I have to throw in Neil Young, right?). The only thing wrong with the set was that it wasn't longer, or that perhaps it ever had to end.

Then it was time for the coups de gras - the evening had to end, but the death was merciful. In fact it was joyfully rapturous.

The band walked back on, but with a Brit in tow, and the truest fireworks were unveiled. Watching Jeff Beck play lead guitar with ZZ Top is something that every single person who has ever loved rock 'n' roll even for a moment should have the opportunity to witness. Kicking off the extended encore with the bands' signature song, La Grange, it was great to hear Beck take the first solo, and take the song on a trip to mid-60s London town, and it could have only gotten better when Gibbons laid down a note perfect rendition of his original solo.

Dusty Hill took over for Tush, and it allowed Beck and Gibbon to toss the solos back and forth like a couple of guys playing catch in spring training. The ease with which these two virtuosos traded heaps of tonal bliss was a sight to see.

Next, Billy Gibbons announced that they were going to break out a number for the first time on this tour, and what followed was the most melodic, soulful version of the band's 1986 top ten hit, Rough Boy. The most pop tune in the group's catalogue, it sounded achingly gorgeous in Beck's strong hands. He milked it for all it was worth, and it was worth its weight in gold.

The quartet rocked out the night with a couple of rock 'n' roll classics, 16 Tons, and Jailhouse Rock, and the sold out audience walked away smiling from ear to ear. The evening ended rather well, with myself and my co-pilot for the evening the lovely Michelle joining a group of tailgaters in the parking lot, drinking high end scotch and smokin' Cuban cigars, as we waited for the lot to empty. Folk, it gets little better than this....

ZZ Top Setlist:

1.   Got Me Under Pressure
2.   Waitin' For The Bus
3.   Jesus Just Left Chicago
4.   Gimme All Your Lovin'
5.   I Gotsa Get Paid
6.   Flyin' High
7.   Foxey Lady (Jimi Hendrix cover)
8.   Catfish Blues (Muddy Waters cover)
9.   My Head's In Mississippi
10.  Chartreuse
11.  Sharp Dressed Man
12.  Legs

Encore (with Jeff Beck):

1.   La Grange
2.   Tush
3.   Rough Boy
4.   16 Tons
5.   Jailhouse Rock


Stephen Sluder said...

Makes me smile... wish I could have seen & heard them on that night (have seen them many times here in Texas).

Lou Silver said...

I was at the same show. I've never been a big ZZ Top fan so I will leave that half alone. But I've seen Jeff Beck any number of times, the first in 1969, and he was, as you said, perfect. He looks relaxed and is having fun, the band is more than solid, and I think the way he constructs his setlist has also improved and made him more accessible to his fans. It was truly a great night.