You're in New York, you go see Les Paul. That was the music-lover's mantra, at least when I lived there a decade ago. Les Paul single-handedly designed, hewed and laid many of the foundation stones of modern popular music -- inventing the solid-body electric guitar, coming up with new ways to play the bejesus out of it, and being one of the first to successfully utilize multi-track recording. From "Guitar Hero" to Garageband, it all goes back to the late, great Les.
JEFF BECK'S ROCK 'N' ROLL PARTY
with the Imelda May Band
♦ 8 p.m. April 1 and 2; (April 2 sold out)
♦ Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
♦ Tickets, $45-$75, (800) 745-3000, ticketmaster.com
On one of the nights I saw him at his weekly gig at Manhattan's Iridium jazz club, in late 2000, he was 85 and playing like he was 25. Technical wizardry aside, here was the Waukesha, Wis., native showing precisely why he wound up being so influential -- because he knew what a guitar could do, what it could take, exactly where its limits were and how to push them. Paul rubbed his pick along the bass strings for a woozy, harmonic tonal plunge, then punctuated the melody with sharp blurts of the upper strings. His right hand crawled up and down the six steel-wrapped strings, poking out plucky grunts and whistles (the sounds he got!). I swear at one point he bent the strings to a 30-degree angle. Who needs a whammy bar?
Paul was a virtuoso, a mad scientist, utterly individual. So when he died in 2009 at age 94, a challenge remained. How do you keep a legacy like this alive?
A static exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wouldn't do. Even video barely does justice to the excitement of Paul scrapping with a guitar. This month, on a panel at the SXSW music conference in Austin, Texas, veteran rock critic Ed Ward said something interesting: "I feel sorry for kids walking down the street with white ear buds. They think music takes place in their head. Music doesn't take place in your head. It takes place in a room." For Paul, it was both. His recording techniques brought the room into our heads, but the room was key.
And now, the room is on tour.
If anyone can reproduce the proficiency and energy of a Paul performance, it's British guitarist Jeff Beck. From rocking the Yardbirds to pre-saging heavy metal in the Jeff Beck Group to crafting jazz-fusion on his own, Beck also has made a career out of exploring the potential and limits of the electric guitar. His initial inspiration, he claims, was Paul.
So last summer, Beck paid tribute to Paul at the same Iridium nightclub. Guests included Brian Setzer, Gary "U.S." Bonds, Trombone Shorty, Darrel Higham and singer Imelda May, who ably recreated Mary Ford's vocal parts as the band ripped through a couple dozen Paul-Ford pop classics, including "How High the Moon," "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise" and "Vaya Con Dios." Beck himself rocked the Paul instrumentals, like "The Train Kept A Rollin'" and a scorching rendition of "Walking in the Sand."
The concert was recorded for a new CD, "Jeff Beck's Rock 'n' Roll Party Honoring Les Paul," and a Blu-ray DVD of the same title. But this spring, Beck is taking the tribute on the road for a short tour across the country, with Imelda May and her band in tow, including a two-night Chicago stand at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.
Beck and Paul met in the 1970s -- Beck in awe of Paul, Paul admiring what Beck was doing -- and had remained friends.
"The first time Les watched me play, I was doing a gig at Avery Fisher Hall in New York with John McLaughlin," Beck says in a piece he wrote for the CD release. "Someone told me Les was in the audience, but I wasn't sure if he would stick around to see me as I was playing after John. To my surprise, he was standing in the wings when I came off stage. He told me that we were good and to carry on with what we were doing, and then he left."
Last month, Beck won three Grammys, two of which were for rock instrumental and pop instrumental.
"Someone told me afterward that only one other person had won in both of these categories, and it was Les," Beck said. "Isn't that something? I'm still following in his footsteps."