photo credit: Larson Sutton
Pick any point in time over the past five-and-a-half decades, and Jeff Beck will be residing on a list, discussed among peers and fans, and standing on a stage as one of the finer guitar players ever to have picked up the instrument. So, what is Johnny Depp doing, standing next to him, singing and playing guitar? More on that in a moment.
First, Jeff Beck is his own version of cool. It’s the vintage, smooth kind of cool, as he dons his shades and steps onto the stage of the Fred Kavli Theatre to the applause from a sold-out crowd. Beck says very little throughout the 90-minute performance, other than a quiet thank-you after a song, or a few times introducing his backing trio- by first name only- whose musicianship dazzles all night behind the guitar king.
Beck grins more than smiles, and treats the guitar with such supple fluidity and care as he draws out tones that soothe, or ache, or hypnotize, or provoke. He opens with “Freeway Jam,” leaning into the familiar melody; his fingers dancing fluently on the fretboard. His setlist of instrumentals moves through the accomplishments of his career and those of his friends: a cap-tip to Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No;” the nod to John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra on “You Know You Know;” the adopted classic, “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers.”
About midway through, Beck welcomes his “mate.” And so appears Johnny Depp, also behind dark sunglasses, as the instantly recognizable groove of Link Wray’s “Rumble” seems to sync with Depp’s saunter. It’s not a surprise, in the literal sense, as Depp has been billed and appearing on this fall run, but it does feel as though whatever he does or is about to do is met with a kind of curious awe from the capacity crowd.
Truthfully, Depp blends right into the band, playing rhythm guitar, then singing; first on their collaborative original, “This Is a Song for Miss Hedy Lamarr,” then on John Lennon’s “Isolation.” The cover is a bold choice, no doubt, and Depp’s vocals sound a bit like Depp doing David Bowie doing Lennon. He tackles Dennis Wilson’s “Time,” and displays conspicuous taste when strumming a 12-string on The Beatles’ “A Day in The Life.”
The juxtaposition was provocative, certainly; an accomplished actor, notable recently for the literal trials of his personal life, moonlighting with one of music’s most accomplished practitioners. Yet, Depp, if not for the pretext, was a guy understanding and respectful of the moment, guesting on a few tunes–some more effectively than others, to be fair. There was no grandstanding or image rehab; just a couple of friends jamming together.
Still, it did shift the momentum away from Beck as the centerpiece. Just as easily, he could’ve played his set without his buddy and likely everyone would’ve been happy with that, too. Depp did everything right that he could; it’s just hard to think Jeff Beck ever needs a guest.
Jeff Beck has more than earned the right to play a show however and with whomever he chooses. His current partnership with Johnny Depp is one more notch in a career full of enigmatic moves unique to and of this creative master. Maybe, with Depp again by his side, the final song of the night, “The Death and Resurrection Show,” says it all.