Jeff Beck, Eric Johnson Bring Killer Ax-Work to Les Paul’s Club
Two vegetarian guitar gods on the far side of the AARP watershed age are hitting New York in the same week and place, thanks to the legacy of ax-master Les Paul.
On Saturday, Eric Johnson, 55, starts a three-day stand at Iridium, the small Manhattan club where Paul, who died last August at 94, had a Monday-night residency for 13 years. Jeff Beck, 65 and another eschewer of meat, comes to the club June 8- 9 to mount what he calls a “rockabilly party” for Paul, whose birthday is June 9.
Playing with Iridium house musicians and drummer Anton Fig from “The Late Show With David Letterman,” Austin native Johnson plans a set drawing on his back catalog, at least one new number and one Paul cover.
It’s his first gig at Iridium, which has been filling the empty Paul slot on Monday nights with a parade of top guitarists -- including Larry Coryell, Stanley Jordan and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Johnson has played with Paul, though.
“I’ve only jammed a couple of times with Les. I think I was so in admiration, I was just kind of watching him all the time,” he said in a phone interview.
Johnson won a 1991 Grammy for the powerful instrumental “Cliffs of Dover,” which enjoyed a run as a crowd-stoking anthem in sports arenas. Known for his driving rock instrumentals and ballads, he has written music that draws on a range of stylists, from Wes Montgomery to Jerry Reed. His latest album is in the final mastering stage and slated for fall release.
Johnson, whose vegetarian regimen may be one reason he remains eerily youthful, assuming there’s no rotting portrait in some attic, says he’s pretty much “doing music fulltime,” but when he can, he likes to go water-skiing.
Beck has filled his down time building sports cars. He owns about 16, which have overflowed a barn he had constructed for them. He has also been restoring the 1591 Tudor mansion where he lives in Sussex about an hour from London.
“It’s nice to see something emerge that was covered up by three or four hundred years of changing styles and taste,” Beck said in a phone interview. He enjoys the company of his two dogs, and the estate’s 80 acres are also home to goats, sheep and peacocks.
The most innovative of the three, Beck has charted an up- and-down career as he alternated between groundbreaking records and low-profile periods. He has been mainly up since a five-day stint in 2007 at Ronnie Scott’s club in London that produced a record and DVD, and earned him a Grammy for his instrumental rendition of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” He was inducted for the second time into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009 (the first was as a Yardbird in 1992), and this year has played arenas with Clapton.
Beck is touring in support of a new album called “Emotion and Commotion” (Atco), his first studio work in seven years. It includes a 64-piece orchestra for his Stratocaster take on “Nessun Dorma” -- a version that uncannily evokes Luciano Pavarotti. Beck played backing guitar and a searing solo for Pavarotti’s recording of “Caruso” on the 2003 album “Ti Adoro.”
The guitarist’s stint at Iridium, where he’ll be playing with an Irish rockabilly group called the Imelda May Band, will be a tribute to Paul and his partner, Mary Ford.
“I’m going to demonstrate that Les Paul’s style leaked out to many other forms of music,” said Beck, who also played with the maestro a few times.
“When I started getting too fancy, he just pulled my plug out” on one occasion, Beck said of Paul. “He was a rascal.”
I’m told there are no seats available for the Beck shows. You can always wait for the DVD. The best comfort is to catch Johnson, who shares Beck’s wide-ranging taste, melodic gifts and killer chops.
Eric Johnson plays June 5, 6 and 7 at 8 and 10 p.m. Jeff Beck plays June 8 and 9. Ticket information: +1-212-582-2121. Iridium is at 1650 Broadway at 51st Street.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this story: Jeffrey Burke in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.