Jeff Beck and guests, Royal Festival Hall, London

Royal Festival Hall, London

Whatever your take on rock guitar heroics, Jeff Beck's three-night South Bank residency was certainly the most miscellaneous gig of the year. It was also a logistical triumph, as more than a dozen performers moved on and off the stage without a hitch, a howl or a bruised ego.

Beck, who has had a sporadic but profitable career over the best part of four decades, is a wiry and surprisingly tall-haired 58-year-old. He acknowledges applause with a salute, and at one point pokes his finger into his ear as if to say: "Blimey, this is a bit loud, even for me." His hairstyle and get-up - black jeans and black singlet - are unfortunately similar to Celeb's Gary Bloke and Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel.

But any suspicion of rock-star idiocy is blown away the second he plays. Beck is an intelligent guitarist, with technique, range and fire. His sound is particularly effective when paired with a belting rock singer, such as Jimmy Hall or Jack White of the White Stripes, who performed Yardbirds songs such as Heart Full of Soul in a tribute set with bassist Jack Lawrence and Beck.

The Stripes, with their unsteady pulse and unrestrained energy, were a canny choice. They make Beck look old and sound young. A clip from Antonioni's Blow Up appeared on circular screens above the stage: it was the scene in which the Yardbirds play the Marquee, showing a youthful David Hemmings, Keith Relf and Beck himself, smashing his guitar for the camera.

The most intense applause of the evening was reserved for jazz musician John McLaughlin, who played on two numbers. For Scatterbrain, the band were joined by tabla player Aref Durvesh. Though Beck professed to be overawed by McLaughlin, he managed to fit in just as many notes. Terry Bozzio, looking like a fit Tony Parsons behind an enormous drum kit, augmented the band from time to time, and played with Beck and brilliant keyboardist Tony Hymas in an exhaustingly energetic power trio.

Beck is a serious artist in an idiom that is increasingly difficult to take seriously, though there are moments when his guitar playing transcends the stereotype. But whether you rock with super-competent session players (his regular band, including Michael Jackson sideperson Jennifer Batten), with gauche youngsters (the White Stripes), with international virtuosi (John McLaughlin, Terry Bozzio) or with leather-trousered rockers (guest singer Paul Rogers, looking like Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder III), rock remains rock.


John L Walters

The GuardianTramp

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