Wilbur Bascomb - bass; Jeff Beck - guitar; Max Middleton - keyboards; Bernard Purdie - drums
After redefining electric guitar during his tenure in the Yardbirds, numerous outstanding permutations of the Jeff Beck Group and following a brief experiment with ex-Vanilla Fudge/Cactus alumni in Beck, Bogart & Appice, Jeff Beck disappeared from the public eye. When he returned in 1975 with his new album, Blow By Blow, it was immediately apparent that Beck was taking an entirely new approach. The album, produced by the legendary George Martin at his AIR Studios, was strictly an instrumental affair and was clearly heading in a jazz-fusion direction. The results were nothing short of spectacular, gaining Beck a new legion of fans, and Blow By Blow would sail up the charts, soon to become one of the best selling instrumental albums of all time.
When Beck took this exciting new material on the road, he assembled a stellar new quartet featuring the outstanding rhythm section of bassist Wilbur Bascomb and drummer Bernard Purdie. He wisely retained the services of keyboardist Max Middleton, the only mainstay from his previous groups. Middleton's jazzy keyboard parts complimented much of Beck's finest early 1970s work, and in this new band he inspired Beck to reach new levels of sophistication. Beck's explorations into this new genre of music were immediately distinctive and would in retrospect prove to be the commercial peak of a long and illustrious career. This recording, when Jeff Beck and the Mahavishnu Orchestra took to the road together, captures this new era perfectly. Much of the Blow By Blow album is here, when it was fresh and new. Even when Beck dips back into his catalogue, older songs are given an altogether new instrumental treatment, bringing out delightful nuances and making them entirely new experiences.
This set, recorded at Detroit's Masonic Temple Theatre, kicks off with the humorously titled, "Constipated Duck." Just prior, one can here Beck preparing to do battle with a choice expletive aimed at his guitar. This opener showcases a wide range of guitar sounds and techniques, with Beck vacillating between screaming psychosis and lyrical beauty, all in the space of four minutes. The set continues with his infectious instrumental take on The Beatles classic, "She's a Woman," featuring Beck playing his guitar through a talk-box, a gadget that he helped introduce to a legion of guitar players. (The way this effect works is the electric guitar signal is diverted from the amplifier speaker to a special hose-like conduit. The hose directs the sound into the guitarist's mouth. Guitarists move their mouth as if they are speaking to change the tone and nuance of the sound, which is then picked up by the microphone.) Next up is one of the standout tracks from the new album, "Freeway Jam," which would become a ubiquitous radio staple, which segues directly into a spine tingling version of one of his finest older compositions, "Definitely Maybe." This is a prime example of the incredible chemistry between Beck and Middleton. Featuring some of Beck's most delicate and gut-wrenchingly beautiful slide guitar playing, at times this sounds as if Beck is channeling Duane Allman himself.
Beck next delivers a two-song tribute to Stevie Wonder, beginning with "Superstition," where he again uses the talk-box to allow his guitar to take the lead vocal. A beautiful introspective take on "Cause We've Ended as Lovers" follows. Beginning with a lovely keyboard improvisation sequence from Middleton, Beck's interpretation of this ballad remains one of his most beautiful displays of emotionally charged guitar playing ever and is certainly a highlight of this performance. His guitar pleads, weeps, and wails, in addition to sighing sweetly, revealing Beck's astounding control of dynamics.
For the last three songs of the set, Beck pulls out all the stops. A sizzling take on Stanley Clarke's "Power" and his own "Diamond Dust," in addition to the old Rough And Ready album track, "Got The Feeling," here revamped in a new instrumental arrangement, all feature blazing guitar work and illuminate what has always made Beck so distinctive. While plenty of other guitarists can play fast, Beck can hold one note, bend it, sustain it, and add in harmonics and distortion like no other. For the encore, Beck delivers the funkified frenzy of "You Know What I Mean," the classic opening track from Blow By Blow. This is another prime example of Beck utilizing the entire guitar, often changing the tone and timbre several times within the course of a song.
Throughout this recording, the group creates a stately sounding fusion of rock, jazz, soul, and blues, bringing Beck's music to a new level of sophistication, while retaining the volatile quality that has always infused his guitar playing. Incorporating a diverse range of musical styles, seasoned with tasteful unpredictability, this performance is a textbook example of what makes any musician truly distinctive. Much like iconic figures such as Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, or Miles Davis, it's not so much the choice of material played, but how immersed the musician is within the context of the music. Here, Beck is deeply immersed and this music ultimately reflects his own volatile and unpredictable personality.