Guitarist, songwriter, and music innovator Les Paul passed away August 13, 2009 at the age of 94. His impact on popular music is immense. Among the many honors bestowed upon Paul was his 2005 induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his innovations that led to the first solid-body electric guitar. Some seventeen years earlier, it was Jeff Beck who inducted Les Paul into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On June 9th, 2010, at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City, Beck led a group of musicians through a tribute to his late hero. The concert was taped for posterity and has been issued on Blu-ray and DVD as Rock ‘n’ Roll Party Honoring Les Paul.
Roughly the first half of the show is dedicated to renditions of songs associated with Les Paul and early rockers influenced by his sound. Rockabilly guitarist and vocalist Darrel Higham fronts the band for the first several tunes. His vocal delivery really captures the feel of 1950s rock and roll. Stephen Rushton is on drums with Al Gare on upright bass. Beck is ultra-precise in his recreation of original lead guitar lines. Vocalist Imelda May leads the band through a number of tunes, including numerous songs made famous by Les Paul and Mary Ford. May pre-recorded harmony vocals that she sings live with, recreating the distinct style once pioneered by the duo. These songs include jazz standards such as “How High the Moon” and “Tiger Rag.”
Things take a decidedly more rocking turn about halfway through, with a scorching rendition of “The Peter Gunn Theme,” featuring a powerhouse horn section. Troy Andrews, aka Trombone Shorty, is on hand as a special guest along with tenor sax man Leo Green, Dave Priseman on trumpet, and Blue Lou Marini (of the Blues Brothers Band) on baritone sax. Beck really starts to let his hair down at this point, with his carefully crafted leads becoming increasingly raucous.
Legendary rock and roller Gary U.S. Bonds joins the band for “New Orleans” and Stray Cat Brian Setzer sits in for “Twenty Flight Rock.” Imelda May comes back out for some sizzlingly intense tunes, highlighted by the Shangri-La’s “Remember (Walking In the Sand).” Beck’s guitar work is extraordinary throughout, but he just kills it on this number. Higham leads the expanded group through a trio of early rock and roll classics, including Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” bringing down the house.
Eagle Rock Entertainment’s Blu-ray edition of Rock ‘n’ Roll Party Honoring Les Paul is framed at 1.78:1 in 1080i high definition. The entire concert was shot in a small club with a very simple lighting design. Not much happens visually (actually a plus in the age of hyperactive camera-work), but the image is sharp and consistent. Cool, dark blues dominate the color scheme but the red of Brian Setzer’s guitar and Imelda May’s dress jump out boldly. The brass section’s instruments glisten brilliantly under the stage lights. Even with an emphasis on wide shots showing the entire band, details such as facial features register strongly.
Audio options include DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and LPCM 2.0 Stereo. The DTS track is preferable, but all three options sound good. The DTS track has a real “live” feel, with each element of the band crisply defined. Emphasis is squarely on the lead instruments and voices, with Beck’s guitar always prominent. The horn section is very powerful sounding. The rhythm section is well balanced, with just the right amount of bass. The Dolby mix sounds a little tamer by comparison. It’s still pretty good, but doesn’t have the punchy sound of the DTS.
Fans will be pleased with the selection of supplements included on Rock ‘n’ Roll Party Honoring Les Paul. A twenty-six-minute interview with Jeff Beck focuses on his reasons for staging the concert, how he selected the band and guest performers, and his respect and admiration of Les Paul. “Behind the Scenes” is self-explanatory, with snippets of rehearsal footage, comments from concert attendees, and footage of the crew setting up. These are presented in high definition. There is some cool footage of an older concert featuring Beck and Les Paul together, jamming on a couple of tunes. “At Home with Jeff Beck and his Guitars” is exactly what it sounds like, with the guitarist displaying his arsenal of axes. Both of these featurettes are in standard definition.
Jeff Beck fans, and fans of early rock and roll in general, are in for a treat with Rock ‘n’ Roll Party Honoring Les Paul on Blu-ray. It’s a fantastic tribute to one of the most important figures in rock music, as well as a reminder of the ongoing vitality of the music from that bygone era.