After watching this disc, Judge Clark Douglas is sittin' on top of the world.
It's the best party in town.
There are musicians, there are good musicians, there are great musicians, there are musical legends, and then there are…oh, let's call them "musical cornerstones." Les Paul would certainly fit into this last category. The fact that Paul developed the technology which gave us multitrack recording and that he gave us the endlessly popular Gibson Les Paul guitar would be enough; that he wrote dozens of hit songs between 1945 and 1961 is just icing on the cake.
Shortly after Paul's death in 2009, guitarist Jeff Beck (an innovator in his own right who has used the Gibson Les Paul from time to time over the course of his career) decided he wanted to pay tribute. Gathering a troupe of talented fellow musicians (Imelda May, Darrel Higham, Brian Setzer, Trombone Shorty and Gary U.S. Bonds), Beck chose the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City as his performing venue. This was only appropriate, as Paul had played at the club every week for years. Gathering up a wide variety of old Paul tunes and a generous handful of other '50s and '60s favorites, Beck breezes through a charming, fast-paced evening.
I have to admit, I was honestly expecting the Jeff Beck Rock n' Roll Party Honoring Les Paul to be a bit different than it actually is. I suspected that Beck would bring his own distinctive musical voice to the songs and give them a fresh modern spin. However, Beck seems to regard the tunes as sacred and devotes himself to faithfully recreating them rather than attempting to alter or improve them. As such, the concert will probably be more appreciated by fans of Paul than of Beck, though Beck deserves tremendous credit for doing such an effective, entertaining Paul impersonation.
As you might expect from a playlist made of rock songs from the '50s and '60s, the numbers are mostly pretty brief. Beck and company charge through no less than 27 songs in no more than 87 minutes; taking little time to pause for commentary or applause. The set kicks off with a quartet of upbeat rockabilly tunes sung by Darrel Higham: "Baby Let's Play House," "Double Talkin' Baby," "Cruisin'," and "Train Kept A Rollin'" (one gets the impression rockers of the era didn't care for allowing the letter "g" to end certain words). These are respectable enough, but the concert jumps to the next level with the arrival of Irish singer Imelda May.
To be sure, May's terrific vocals play a large role in this, but it should also be noted that she gets a more diverse lineup of songs. In particular, she gets to handle some of the lovelier ballads (such as Paul's classic "Vaya Con Dios" and the incomparably beautiful "Cry Me a River") and plays with some pre-recorded backing vocals in a successful attempt at recreating once cutting-edge concert performance techniques. Her terrifically energetic performance of "Tiger Rag" is a highlight, as is her take on "Sitting on Top of the World."
Around the halfway point, we're treated to a handful of instrumental pieces: Henry Mancini's eternally cool "Peter Gunn" theme, plus Jerry Lordan's iconic "Apache" and Santo & Johnny's dreamy "Sleep Walk." All of these pieces offer a musical flavor that's a bit different from everything else while still seeming stylistically appropriate for the event. These are followed by a brief but memorable appearance from Gary U.S. Barnes, who engages the audience more directly than any of the other performers and belts his way through "New Orleans."
After May returns for a sublime take on "Walking in the Sand" and "Please Mr. Jailer," Higham turns up to duet with her on "Casting My Spell on You" before taking the assignment of carrying us through the homestretch. While there's nothing wrong with Higham's Elvis-like rockabilly vocals, his low, steady warblings just aren't as interesting as May's. Still, the closing numbers ("Rock Around the Clock" and "Shake, Rattle & Roll") bring an appropriate level of energy to the proceedings.
Though presented in 1080i (as pretty much every Blu-ray concert release has been), this 1.78:1 transfer offers superb detail and depth throughout. The show certainly isn't flashy on a visual level, as on-stage flair is traded in for a sense of intimacy (I'd guess there are no more than 100-150 people in attendance, if that many). Skin tones are warm and natural throughout and the cinematography is lively without being distracting. The lossless audio is a considerable asset, giving these vintage songs some crisp punch and providing an effectively immersive experience. There's an excellent balance between the vocals and instrumentals, and crowd noise is kept to a minimum. Extras include an extensive interview with Jeff Beck (27 minutes), a collection of behind-the-scenes footage (19 minutes), two featurettes (the 15-minute "At Home with Jeff Beck and His Guitars" and the 5-minute "Les Paul and His Little Black Box") and two bonus musical performances ("Blues Jam" and "Back at the Chicken Shack").
Offering a steady blend of blues, ballads and rockbilly energy, Jeff Beck Rock n' Roll Party Honoring Les Paul is loads of fun. Beck turns in a strong Paul impression, while Imelda May steals the show with her great vocal performances. The disc looks and sounds great and comes with a nice supply of supplemental material. This is one of the stronger concert discs I've seen lately.
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