On paper, the pairing of two rock legends, guitarist Jeff Beck and singer-songwriter Van Morrison as headliners of the BluesFest Sunday night show at London’s 20,000 seat 02 Arena looked promising, but certainly nothing resembling a sure thing.
First of all, an arena of adoring fans both from and in their 60s might not be ready to face two of the most uncompromising artists who long-ago transcended the 60s British Invasion music scene they hailed from. Arena crowds can be both too undemanding, just happy to be out on the town or alternately demanding, but asking for nothing more than a full menu of the oh-so familiar.
Also looming were questions about which Beck and which Van would appear: Ex-Yardbird Jeff long ago abandoned rave-up rock for heavy jazz and some forays into funk that were among his less-compelling musical excursions.
Van is almost always solid, often capable of delivering transcendent concert experiences fans discuss for decades. But he can, now and then, infuriate audiences when he’s in one of his “I don’t need this” moods.
The result could be called a happy draw because while neither star delivered a “nostalgia” show for the snowy-haired set, (Morrison’s delightful song “Magic Time” both name-checks and makes peace with the ‘n’ word), Beck was dazzlingly lyrical and punchy and Morrison managed to weave many of The Hits (or at least The Hits HE likes) through a career retrospective that spryly entertained while also delving deep into several rich veins of his idiosyncratic Blues-to-Blake Poetic Champion songbook.
His hour-plus set proved Beck was in many ways an inspired choice to precede Van. Morrison is one of rock’s great adventurous wordsmiths, but Beck is in every way his equal as a fearlessly searching musician.
No words needed.
When Beck did add vocals on his covers of rhythm and blues classics like Sam Cooke’s “Change Is Gonna Come,” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” or on rediscoveries of his own work, such as “Morning Dew,” from his first solo album, he was ably assisted by Wet Willie’s Jimmy Hall.
But it was “Beck’s Bolero,” an instrumental nugget from that album, 1968’s “Truth,” that showed the full force of Beck’s enduring mastery of the simple white Telecaster which he wields and he appears, amazingly, to operate without a pick.
If callouses could talk.
Long-considered a Mount Rushmore-level rock guitarist, one has to see Beck in concert today to appreciate how he got to the top of the mountain without the mega-stardom boost of being in a band like fellow icons Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin or Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones or a consistent chart-hit conjurer like Eric Clapton.
He did it by being second only to Jimi Hendrix in terms of creating beautiful, expressive, complex music that is always deeply rooted in the blues, while never constricted or limited by those roots.
His piece de resistance Sunday night was a wordless reimagining of John Lennon’s “A Day in the Life,” which proved Paul wasn’t the only Beatle who knew his way around a melody, but also that our knowledge of the song 50 years after its introduction means with Beck’s vision and technique, we can process those words and still be devastated by them, without hearing them.
Morrison’s set was sprawling, with lapses into less-than inspired and over-extended riffs on secondary material, followed by spirited leaps into his enchanted explorations of same, and also punctuated with highlights that proved Van is still The Man.
Early in the set, his gorgeous, uptempo retooling of the hit “Have I Told You Lately” served to announce “Yeah I wrote that hit,” but also challenged his listeners to hold on to its new shape.
Some might have fallen off.
Impossible to misinterpret was his blues jam with Beck and 60s U.K. soul shouter Chris Farlowe. Warhorse “Stormy Monday” was made for Beck’s guitar and generated perhaps the most unexpected delight of the evening: Chris Farlowe started challenging Van on vocals and a laughing Van (yes) took to the challenge and vocally upped the ante.
His joy carried over into “Every Time I See A River,” one of the few new songs in the set, an absolute gem with lyrics by Don Black that fit Van like a glove.
Morrison gave the crowd some of the rock hits they came to hear, blowing through “Here Comes The Night” and delicately breezing up “Moondance.” Lesser known set stalwarts abounded, with Van infusing “Wavelength” with new life, failing to elevate mid-career ace “Cleaning Windows” and deftly fusing Them hit “Baby Please Don’t Go” into Mose Allison’s “Parchment Farm.”
Fans of Van’s early masterpiece album “Astral Weeks” were treated to the difficult-to-maneuver “Ballerina” and if you came to hear “Gloria” you got it in spades. That tune strangely became a lengthy, concert-ending jam with Van mid-song, long-gone, offstage to wherever Van goes.
So the evening returned to the magic place where Jeff Beck began it: Just the blues, rocked up, no words needed, good night.