Jeff Beck - Performing This Week: Live at Ronnie Scott'sOverview -
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
Rumors were rampant about a special musical event scheduled to occur in London in November 2007. Then the news came out: 63-year-old jazz/rock guitar legend Jeff Beck was going to perform for five nights of unparalleled musicianship at the legendary Ronnie Scott's jazz club at 47 Frith Street in Soho. For Beck's legion of fans – including his long-time friends and musical colleagues Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page (who, like Beck, performed with The Yardbirds in the '60s) – this was a rare opportunity to witness Beck's brilliance in an intimate setting. Even after a lavish remodeling of its celebrated, cozy interior, the main room of Ronnie Scott's is still limited to a seating capacity of only 220, allowing for a very personal connection between musicians and audience. A local institution since it opened in 1959 under original owner and namesake Ronnie Scott (who died in 1996), the club was inherited by Scott's friend Pete King, who kept it going for another nine years. In 2005 the venue was sold to London theater impresario Sally Greene, who closed it down for three months in early 2006, gave it a lavish interior makeover by Parisian designer Jacques Garcia, and reopened it in June of that same year.
It was noted saxophonist Leo Green, Ronnie Scott's artistic director and now-former club manager, who convinced Beck to perform at the venue despite the guitarist's initial misgivings about playing loud jazz/rock fusion typically performed in larger, more sonically expansive settings. Beck had some additional incentive, however: A few months earlier, in July, he'd appeared at the club to accept the inaugural Ronnie Scott's Award for Blues Artist of the Year, and spontaneously fronted the house band with a show-stopping interpretation of his favorite Charles Mingus standard, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," shifting with flawless finesse into his own composition, "Brush With the Blues." (For the benefit of Beck fans everywhere, that breathtaking combination is repeated in this high-def performance.)
As it turned out, Beck needn't have worried about acoustics: After a one-night period of adjustment, his five-night stint at Ronnie Scott's (introduced on this disc by Leo Green) turned out to be one of the highlights of his amazing career, and his satisfaction is buoyantly evident throughout the 100-minute set that is beautifully captured on this must-have Blu-ray concert disc. Simply put, this is one of the most astonishing guitar performances ever captured for posterity. Equal praise is well-earned by the hand-picked touring band that Beck had been traveling with prior to the Ronnie Scott's gigs: This is arguably the best band Beck has ever assembled, from the amazing precision of drummer Vinnie Colaiuta to the fleet-fingered excellence of keyboardist Jason Rebello (like Colaiuta, a veteran of Sting's touring band) and, perhaps most impressively, the amazingly skilled Tal Wilkenfeld, a 22-year-old Australian electric bass prodigy whom Beck sincerely compares to the late, great bassist Jaco Pastorius – and if you know anything about jazz, you know that praise simply doesn't get any higher than that.
Beck had been playing with this band for only six months when the Ronnie Scott gigs came up, with previous gigs including Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago (available on DVD) and a brief series of European concert dates in July 2007. Wilkenfeld and Colaiuta had played together before (that's obvious when you see how well they groove together), and the entire unit was thick as thieves by the time they took the stage at Ronnie's. The only problem was the club itself: Beck and the band had been playing a similar set in much larger venues, and the first night at Ronnie's ("disastrous" is how Beck describes it) was essentially trial-by-error, allowing the musicians to fine-tune their sound with each successive performance until they perfected it. By the end of the fifth sold-out performance -- seen here with Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in the rapturous audience – Beck was beaming with obvious elation, proclaiming to the intimate crowd, "This is the end of the best week I've had." You can take his word for it, because 'Live at Ronnie Scott's' should now be considered essential listening for anyone with even an inkling of interest in masterful jazz/rock fusion.
The entire 100-minute, 21-song performance consists of highlights, so choosing favorite songs is purely a matter of individual taste and familiarity with Beck's musical legacy. By trimming out songs and solos that worked better in larger venues, Beck honed the Ronnie Scott gigs into a comprehensive survey of his career, opening with "Beck's Bolero," a familiar track (composed by Page) from the Jeff Beck Group's 1968 debut LP "Truth." After that, the highlights just keep on coming, so we'll select a few here for special mention. After stunning performances of "Eternity's Breath" (a favorite composition by Beck's longtime friend, collaborator and mentor John McLaughlin) and Billy Cobham's rhythmically challenging "Stratus," Beck smoothly launches into a stunning version of Stevie Wonder's "'Cause We've Ended As Lovers" (a signature hit from his groundbreaking 1975 LP, "Blow By Blow"), featuring a jaw-dropping bass solo by Tal Wilkenfeld that has deservedly become a viral sensation on YouTube. Even Beck appears astonished by Wilkenfeld's majestic solo, and when the young bassist flashes a playful expression that says "take THAT, mister bandleader!" Beck bows to her talent as they share a big, beaming exchange of smiles. The moment is pure magic for musicians and audience alike.
Next up is the reggae-driven "Behind the Veil" and the power-trio blast of "You Never Know" (composed by Beck's longtime keyboard player Jan Hammer, who skipped this gig due to travel concerns) before Beck segues into "Nadia," a breathtakingly beautiful melody by Nitin Sawhney that's one of Beck's personal favorites in this set. Among the other highlights: Colaiuta's explosive backing and drum solo on "Led Boots" (even Beck seems a bit taken aback by Vinnie's virtuosity); "Angel (Footsteps)," with Beck using a bottleneck slide to perfectly tap a high refrain on the strings below his fret-board (to the awe and amazement of guitarists everywhere); a face-melting performance of the ultra-fast, Beck-composed "Scatterbrain"; the aforementioned "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" followed by "Brush With the Blues"; and a brilliant rendition of The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" that Beck first performed at a tribute for George Harrison, so elegantly loyal that song's gorgeous melody that you may find yourself weeping at the sheer beauty of it. And this is just a sampling of the set's 21 songs, so it's easy to understand why the lucky crowds at Ronnie Scott's were so thrilled to witness Beck at the peak of his musical prowess.
Since it's always a good idea to mix it up in performance (lest anyone in the audience gets fidgety), Beck made a brilliant decision to include some very special guests at the Ronnie Scott's gigs. In form-fitting jeans and a red tank-top, Joss Stone slinks onstage for a deeply soulful performance of Curtis Mayfield's classic "People Get Ready" (which Beck first popularized with Rod Stewart on vocal); and the equally lovely Imogen Heap comes on stage to lend a bluesy vocal to her own composition "Blanket" and the swampy, grinding groove on the McKinley Morganfeld classic "Rollin' and Tumblin'," which is about as close as this set gets to a full-on blues performance. Both of these sexy performers provide perfect counterpoint to the rest of the set.
Then there's the big surprise that nobody in the audience was prepared for: Beck announces the arrival of "a guy who knows his way around a Fender Stratocaster," and Eric Clapton joins Beck and the band for a flawless rendition of Muddy Waters' "Little Brown Bird" (a personal favorite of Beck and Clapton's from their early days), with Beck providing awe-inspiring bottleneck accompaniment to Clapton's deep-blues vocal and Fender lead. This is followed by Willie Dixon's "You Need Love," with Beck and Clapton trading priceless licks while Beck's guitar achieves perfect harmony with Clapton's vocal. When you consider the shared history of these guitar legends, this rare appearance of Beck and Clapton together is well worth the price of this disc, and then some. Guitar mastery simply doesn't get any better than this. Ever. Anywhere.
All of the contents on 'Jeff Beck – Performing This Week…Live at Ronnie Scott's' (Blu-ray) are presented in 1080i high-def in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, with a warm nightclub color palette dominating the program. Using four high-def video cameras that remain almost completely invisible throughout the performance, producer/director Stuart Watts and director of photography Barry Dodd do a brilliant job of focusing purely on the music. You won't find any swooping crane shots or distracting camerawork here – just smoothly shot and elegantly edited coverage of the players onstage, taking full advantage of static or slightly moving camera angles that capture all of the intimacy of this performance. Emphasis is placed on close-ups of the band's peerless mastery of their instruments, with constant focus on Beck's astonishing fretwork, his signature style of picking (using only his thumb and fingertips), and his subtle mastery of the whammy-bar, bottleneck slide and Stratocaster volume knob. The visuals also provide a strong sense of the club's intimate atmosphere, with frequent cutaways to the audience and their dimly-lit nightclub surroundings.
1080p would have been preferable to 1080i, but the image quality of "Live at Ronnie Scott's" is never less than excellent. There's nothing challenging here in terms of high-def presentation, just a nicely glowing cobalt-blue backdrop behind the postage-stamp-sized stage, and warm sepias and earth-tones throughout the club interior. Otherwise, this is a no-nonsense concert video, with a refreshing absence of visual distractions. There are no contrast issues to speak of, and the color palette is very easy on the eyes, with no blooming or inconsistencies, and life-like flesh-tones and vivid definition of detail.
Jeff Beck's five-night stint at Ronnie Scott's was recorded and mixed by Alan Branch and mastered by Dick Beetham at 360 Mastering in London. 'Jeff Beck – Performing This Week…Live at Ronnie Scott's' offers three audio options: LPCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS HD Master Audio. For those equipped with DTS receivers, the latter option is by far the most appealing, as it captures the club-gig atmosphere with breathtaking verisimilitude. Audience applause is perfectly recreated in the surround channels for a remarkable sense of you-are-there immediacy, and the musical performance has a rich, muscular clarity through the left/right front and center channels, with an even mix among instruments that's just about perfect. Some audiophiles may want to tweak their system a bit to find the preferred speaker levels for their specific home-theater environment, but otherwise this is a highly professional, ready-to-play recording that's been flawlessly mastered with Jeff Beck's approval. LPCM Stereo and DD 5.1 are secondary options, presented here with equal attention to quality, but the DTS track is by far the most impressive.
All of the video (performance and bonus material) is presented in 1080i, 16x9 widescreen 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The highlight among this disc's satisfying bonus material is a well-conducted 30-minute interview with Jeff Beck, recorded at Ronnie Scott's in early 2008, covering all aspects of the Ronnie Scott's performances from choice of set list, recruiting the band, and various historical anecdotes including Beck's amusing recollection of meeting Eric Clapton for the very first time. An assembly of interviews with the other band members is fairly brief (6:44) but worth a look 'n listen, and additional Blu-ray exclusive bonus features are described below.
With a simple, easy-to-navigate Main Menu (including surround-sound ambience that nicely recreates the pre-performance atmosphere of Ronnie Scott's intimate club setting) and the exclusive-to-Blu-ray pop-up menu allowing easy song-title reference during playback, 'Jeff Beck – Performing This Week…Live at Ronnie Scott's' is one of the very best concert discs currently available on Blu-ray. There's a refreshing absence of marketing junk (no product promotions etc.) and the entire disc serves the music, from the knockout main set by Beck and his band to the well-produced bonus material that places Beck's performance in well-informed context. If you're a Jeff Beck fan – and even if you're not – this is one Blu-ray disc that belongs in every HD music-video collection. Buy it – now – and you won't regret it.
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