NEW YORK — How rare an event was the small-club show Jeff Beck played here on Wednesday night? Well, Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett flew in from his home in Hawaii to catch it. And he wasn't the only weighty player in attendance. Also crowding into the packed-out Iridium, a Broadway jazz club, were E Street Band (and "Sopranos") veteran Steven Van Zandt; onetime Stray Cat Brian Setzer; psychedelic-blues virtuoso Warren Haynes, of Gov't Mule; and such notable Beck buddies as Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer.
They were all on hand to catch the great guitarist in an uncommon context. Beck's fiery, soaring style — which has been unendingly influential ever since he emerged as Eric Clapton's replacement in the Yardbirds in 1965 — makes glorious use of maximum volume. However, his two Iridium dates (the first one, the night before, had drawn such admirers as David Bowie) were a birthday tribute to Beck's late friend, the innovative guitarist Les Paul, whose own style was clean, sharp and jazzy. In saluting Paul — who maintained a weekly Iridium gig virtually up to the time of his death last year,
at the age of 94 — Beck would necessarily be turning down the volume a bit; and since Paul had a strong country side, too, his English acolyte would also be showcasing his rockabilly chops.
Beck was joined for these dates by Irish singer Imelda May and her tight three-piece band. May is a belter with range — she's up for taking on early Elvis and even Howlin' Wolf, and she held her own as Beck called forth the ghosts of such rockabilly guitar masters as Cliff Gallup and Paul Burlison (on a stomping rendition of "Train Kept A-Rollin'," a tune Beck covered with the Yardbirds). But May also shifted down to a smoky purr for Julie London's late-night lounge standard, "Cry Me a River" (with Beck flawlessly replicating Barney Kessel's original plaintive chord patterns); and her takes on such vintage Les Paul recordings as "How High the Moon" and "Bye Bye Blues," whipped along by Beck's heavily echoed riffing, were pure, jumping '50s pop.
Paul invented the solid-body Gibson guitar that bears his name, and Beck has played one at various times throughout his career. But he's most closely associated with the Fender Stratocaster, which has a throatier, more sinuous tone. So when he strapped one on midway through the show (possibly to the dismay of Gibson Guitar execs in the audience), the music grew noticeably more muscular. Bringing on a four-piece horn section, he unleashed the deathless crunch of "The Peter Gunn Theme," and then — out of nowhere — launched into a rendition of the Shangri-Las' girl-group classic, "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)," that might have actually raised the roof if the club weren't located in a basement. The show peaked when Beck invited Brian Setzer out onstage ("the only guy in the room who could give him competition," Van Zandt whispered) with his trademark Gretsch guitar. Their extended, dueling-riffs run-through of Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock" was the sort of thing guitar fans might expect to hear only in heaven.
The crowd was still buzzing at an upstairs party following the show. Most people have a favorite Beck phase: the Yardbirds stuff, of course, or maybe the mid-'70s jazz-fusion period of Blow by Blow and Wired. For Kirk Hammett, the Jeff Beck Group's 1968 blues-rock touchstone, Truth, was a major album. "One of the very first guitar solos I ever heard was the one on 'Let Me Love You,' " Hammett said. And tonight's show? "I just went, Oh my god, there he goes again!"