Various Artists – Freeway Jam, To Beck And Back (2007)

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by S. Victor Aaron

Maybe Nick’s covered a couple of “various artists” albums on this blog, I don’t remember. But until now, I’ve stayed away from them. It’s hard to assess these kind of albums as a whole, when there’s so many styles and approaches coexisting on the same record. Usually these records have more the feel of a collection of singles thrown together than an actual coherent album.

Tribute albums are a tad easier to judge as a whole than other kinds of various artists releases; the object of tribute is the unifying theme of the record. On the other hand, they consist of songs you’ve heard before and it’s not likely that anyone is going to outdo the original; if they could, then perhaps the wrong person is being put up on a pedestal. That being said, if anyone still with a beating heart is due for an all-star homage record, that would be British uber-guitarist Jeff Beck.

Jeff Beck was one of the first fusion guitarists I really got into, just a few years after his double-whammy releases of Blow By Blow and Wired, both of which are often held up as two of the best instrumental rock guitar albums for the ages. By then, he had already made his mark in The Yardbirds and as leader of the groundbreaking heavy metal combo, The Jeff Beck Group. I can remember toward the end of the seventies regularly finding Beck at or near the top of the “best guitarists” lists in Guitar Player magazine and being mentioned as major influences for every significant rock or fusion guitarist at that time.

So, it’s not hard to conclude that there were a whole lot of budding guitarists in the seventies and eighties doing some serious woodshedding to Jeff Beck vinyls and tapes, deconstructing his solos and getting a handle on his unique blend of blues, rock and jazz. Now some twenty or thirty years later, a handful of these beginners are now something of legends themselves.

One of those disciples, Jeff Richman, got the idea for this tribute record and for each track brought in a different representative of the finest fusion and fusion-inclined guitarists on the scene today—those said woodshedders of decades ago. The rhythm section that Richman supplied consists of Mitchel Forman on keyboards, Stu Hamm on bass and either Vinnie Colaiuta or Simon Phillips on drums. All are long time veterans of the fusion scene.

Keyboard man Mitch Forman, a sideman on many notable fusion records (including some of John Scofield’s mid-eighties ones), does great accompaniment work and keeps his solos unobtrusive. Forman won’t send Keith Emerson scurrying back to class anytime soon, but wisely avoids trying to upstage the featured soloists. Bassist Stu Hamm made his mark playing in both Steve Vai’s and Joe Satriani’s bands.

Simon Phillips came onto the scene playing the kit for Stanley Clarke and Pete Townshend, as well as Beck himself (1980’s There And Back). Nowadays he is ably filling in for the late Jeff Porcaro in Toto. Vinnie Colaiuta had played for Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Barbara Streisand, Gino Vannelli, John Abercrombie, Michael Franks, Allan Holdsworth, Sting, Robben Ford, Leonard Cohen…the list goes on and on.

Richman himself rounds out the backing band with rhythm guitar duties, as well as the solo role for “El Becko.”

Thankfully, this is not the shred-fest that the record could have easily become given the material and the pedigree of the guest guitarists. To their credit, each has opted for reasonable restraint and reverence over out-and-out hot doggery. With a few notable exceptions, the songs are played very similar to how Beck did ’em.

Which track qualifies as your favorite may have to do with whether or not one of your favorite guitarists plays on it. This is probably why “Over The Sideways Down” gets bonus points from me, as one of my main men John Scofield is the featured soloist, here. Eric Johnson’s turn on “Beck’s Bolero” makes me realize how much EJ’s uniquely soaring style of guitar playing owes to Beck’s.

The guitarist who is most stubbornly his own man despite playing homage on someone else’s song is Mike Stern. “Diamond Dust” is recast as a more mellower tune here, and Stern’s hallmark well-paced lines make this track sound more at home on a Stern record than a tribute record.

“Behind The Veil,” the best song out of Beck’s Guitar Shop, has a relaxed, faux reggae vibe provides some contrasts to the rollicking numbers that dominate most of the record. Guest soloist Chris Duarte tracks closely to Beck’s original rendering.

Warren Haynes of Govt Mule and Allman Brothers Band fame shows off his Southern fried axe attack on “The Pump,” while Walter Trout provides more of a more blues guitar perspective on “Brush With The Blues.”

Other featured soloists include Steve Morse (“Freeway Jam”), Adam Rogers (“Led Boots”) and Greg Howe (“Blue Wind”), and as you might expect, all do the man of honor justice with some solid guitar playing.

Jeff Richman did a really admirable job with Beck’s tribute. He was able to attract an impressive list of soloists and sidemen for the project, and the song selection provided a good cross section of some of his best instrumental tracks. The production was clean and not overdone. It’s a solid record.

In the end, though, I still found myself wanting to hear the original tracks over someone else’s rendition. There’s an edge to Beck’s renderings missing from Richman’s congenial recordings. In reminding me of the mind boggling artistry of Jeff Beck, Freeway Jam unwittingly also reminds me of the futility in anyone else trying to mimic it, no matter how good they are. And therein lies the shortcomings inherent in most tribute records.

If what you want to hear are good guitar songs performed by good guitar players, it’s hard not to like Freeway Jam. Just don’t say I didn’t warn ya’ if you find yourself reaching for Truth after you’ve had a go around with it.

Freeway Jam, To Beck And Back is scheduled for domestic release July 17.


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