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Beck’s Back, the Les Paul Way

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Jeff Beck It's a nostalgic vacation, in a way, from a career piloted by Mr. Beck's aggressively virtuosic lead guitar into the far reaches of blues, rock, jazz-rock and, on his 2010 album, “Emotion & Commotion," a version of the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma," which just won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental.

But for this concert Mr. Beck mostly set aside the long, dramatic arcs and searing peaks of his own catalog to be part of an oldies act. He joins the Irish singer Imelda May and her rockabilly-rooted band to knock out 1950s rockers, one three-minute song after another: hits from Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Bill Haley. On Monday it was rare for Mr. Beck to take a guitar solo longer than 16 bars—and when he did, he often mimicked the recording.

It wasn't a bad oldies act. Ms. May has a rich, tangy voice and a sultry presence, attacking the songs with the intensity of a '60s soul singer, and striking glamorous poses in slinky dresses. Her husband and rhythm guitarist, Darrel Higham, sang a few songs with Presley growls. Like most rockabilly revivalists in the wake of the Stray Cats, the band is pushier than the '50s originators, and this one rocked better than it rolled in songs like Little Richard's “Girl Can't Help It."

The concert was a tribute to Les Paul, the guitarist and inventor with whom Mr. Beck forged a long friendship. The set list largely reproduced Mr. Beck's album and DVD “Rock 'n' Roll Party Honoring Les Paul" (Eagle Rock Entertainment). At its center was a string of tunes that Paul recorded with his wife, Mary Ford, like “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise": pioneering examples of multitracking that multiplied Ms. Ford's prerecorded voice—and onstage, Ms. May's prerecorded voice—in layers of harmony. (Mr. Beck was playing a sunburst Gibson Les Paul guitar.)

They were sleek, affectionate re-creations, with Mr. Beck stretching to 32-bar solos, summoning Paul's country-jazz flamboyance with skidding slides, bursts of speed and vertiginous trills. The tribute would have made an entertaining interlude in a different concert. So would the familiar guitar instrumentals Mr. Beck played—like “Sleep Walk" and “Apache"—although he too rarely detoured from the original versions.

But the jukebox pace grew wearing, as did Mr. Beck's unwanted modesty. When the band played “Train Kept A-Rollin,' “ it went back to the '50s Johnny Burnette version rather than Mr. Beck's own brash reinvention of the song with the Yardbirds in the '60s. For an encore, Mr. Beck and Ms. May did something different with “Remember (Walking in the Sand)," the grandly despondent 1964 Shangri-Las hit. He let his guitar sing the melody his way: wailing, scurrying, climbing, jabbing, swooping. Ms. May followed through, torchier than ever, and Mr. Beck's guitar escalated again, screaming and slicing. It was the kind of anachronism the rest of the show needed.


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