Though he turns 83 in June, Les Paul still has the compulsion to perform, whether at his regular Monday-night gig at the Iridium club in New York City or in a rare West Coast appearance as part of the House of Blues’ fourth anniversary concerts. There, surrounded by genuflecting rock guitarists of several generations, he basked in his role as icon and offered glimpses of the Les Paul of yore.
Like Dr. Frankenstein, Paul’s electric guitar innovations made it possible for the emergence of the rock ‘n’ roll monster, which then devoured his own career as a hitmaker with Mary Ford in the ’50s and later resurrected him as a legend when rockers noticed his name on their guitars. It was touching to see the genuine affection that the younger guitarists have for Les, even though their own idioms have almost nothing in common with that of their idol.
Although Paul looked amazingly spry, ever the wise-cracker, arthritis and age have taken their toll on his once-astounding guitar technique. In the opening set with his trio, he played mostly at safe ballad tempos, drawing from his usual repertoire (“St. Louis Blues,” “Over The Rainbow”) — and the less said about his attempt at his signature hit, “How High The Moon,” the better. Yet Paul can still make fine music; his note selection is spare but razor-sharp, his uniquely brassy tone intact, his musical sense of humor operating on all eight cylinders. And he even gave us a sample of his hillbilly Rhubarb Red act of the 1930s.
When the rockers came on, Paul’s role diminished, trading a few licks or just watching thoughtfully. Some tried to charm the master — Dave Edmunds with his deft Merle Travis/Chet Atkins-style finger picking, “Skunks” Baxter with his quote-laden emulation of Paul’s style on “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Slash, on the other hand, took over the show with metallic renditions of “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “The Thrill Is Gone,” the latter of which found Paul offering some effectively laconic blues responses.
Stephen Stills, his voice almost gone, offered the countrified “Teach Your Children” and struck up some gritty fuzz-tone licks on a blues shuffle. Yet it was Steve Vai, once a Frank Zappa protege, who not only made the most resourceful use of the electric guitar’s capabilities but also achieved the closest rapport with Paul, adapting and blending his style with that of Paul in an electrically sublime “Summertime.”
Of course there was a grand finale, with everyone pitching in on a jumping rockabilly shuffle. Looking a bit bewildered yet pleased, Paul was mostly content to hear his children play with the toys he helped to invent.