- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Anyone expecting to hear traditional 12-bar blues at Wolf Trap Tuesday night must have been baffled by Jeff Beck. The British guitar great was, after all, in town to co-headline a show with the legendary bluesman B.B. King, but the sounds of the Delta were the furthest thing from the ex-Yardbird’s mind.

A virtuoso with eclectic taste and a love for cars that rivals his affection for the six-string, Mr. Beck lately has come to embrace electronic music, as heard on his latest album, “Jeff,” an instrumental outing interlarded with loops of female rapping.

During a cut from “Jeff” on Tuesday, a saucer-shaped screen played a video of a blond model mouthing one of those vocal samples. Most of the time, though, the screen offered close-up action of Mr. Beck — which no doubt was quite a schooling for the guitar-heads in the audience.

However, for fans waiting to hear Mr. King — or a hummable melody, at the very least — Mr. Beck’s hour-plus instrumental guitar lesson probably was nothing more than a chilly prelude.

With a busy drummer and ‘80s-vintage synthesizer orchestration, Mr. Beck’s trio could have passed for the Chick Corea band — if it weren’t for the abrasive noises and chunky droning coming from Mr. Beck himself, that is.

Revisiting early experiments such as “Freeway Jam” from the George Martin-produced guitar-god feast, 1975’s “Blow by Blow,” and later efforts such as “Big Block,” Mr. Beck didn’t so much play his Stratocaster as abuse it.

Searching for abrupt pitch bends and harmonic shifts, his hands were all over the thing; it’s a wonder it didn’t fall apart.

Mr. Beck frequently leaned on a whammy bar that sent his guitar into unnaturally low registers that sounded like a Harley murmuring at full throttle. He played bottleneck slide way past the 20-odd frets of the Strat, making chirpy, birdlike noises.

On the other end of his ax, where the strings are tightly wound around little metal pegs, Mr. Beck made light plucking motions and then hurled the resulting notes into dog-torturing frequencies.

By the time Mr. Beck settled into a cover of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and “People Get Ready,” the Curtis Mayfield hit that he recorded with Rod Stewart, it was — I mean this not merely as a figure of speech — music to the ears.

Mr. Beck might not be everyone’s cup of tea — Mr. King affectionately joshed that he was a “show off” later Tuesday night — but the guitarist is more than the sum of his technical feats.

He pays exquisite attention to tone, and his leads are jampacked with uncliched musical phrases; every last guitar lick had premeditated meaning.

Most important, Mr. Beck is still, essentially, playing the blues. It may sound like jazz fusion in spots, industrial electronica at others, but he always winds up in the blues form — a form that owes much to a pioneering Mississippian named Riley B. King.

We all know him, of course, as “B.B.”

The pairing of Mr. Beck with Mr. King was thus a satisfying reminder of how wide the arc of electric blues guitar has stretched since the 77-year-old statesman of the blues started perfecting the style.

When he took to his chair Tuesday night — “My band told me I earned the right to sit down,” he said in a typically gracious understatement — Mr. King elicited, as always, those warm tones and expressive vibrato bends that have become not only his trademark, but that of every wannabe who has picked up the instrument in the past 40 years.

“I’m a diabetic, with bad knees,” Mr. King said, explaining why he was seated. “When you get to be my age, a lot of things stop working.”

Well, we can safely say the fingers aren’t on the injured reserve list.

Running through such standards as “Key to the Highway” and his own crossover classic “The Thrill Is Gone” as well as “I Need You” and “A Mother’s Love” from his recent “Reflections” collection, Mr. King’s playing was remarkably lithe.

Sure, it may have sounded primitive next to Mr. Beck’s, but the latter would be the first to cop to how influential Mr. King’s contribution to the blues has been.

Mr. King symbolically passed the torch when he brought on Mr. Beck for “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss” to accompany his nine-piece band.

A host of twentysomething blues-guitar whiz kids such as Jonny Lang and Joe Bonamassa are waiting to wrest the torch from the old guard.

At 59, Mr. Beck is no spring chicken, but he has many good years ahead of him if he follows Mr. King’s example.

Looks like the young turks will have to wait.

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