By SEAN DALY
Times Pop Music Critic
Jeff Beck, who was once voted the fifth greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone, is "concerned" about his talent. "This is a dangerous one for me," he says.
He's fretting about his upcoming, and altogether unique, tour with Brian Wilson, which stops at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Saturday. That intricate Beach Boys SoCal pop — especially the avant-garde Pet Sounds — presents a challenge. It's so pristine, so ... perfect.
"There's no way you can escape when someone's off," he says during a rather enlightening phone call from his home in England. "I screw up just like anyone else."
To which I reply: "Actually, no. No, you don't. You're Jeff Beck."
He laughs: "You think so, huh? I have a nervous disposition."
Now 69 and revered by music wonks the world over — his style is a deconstructed blues, an eternal quest to make a guitar not act like a guitar — Beck has taken a curious path to that Rolling Stone list.
After starting his career in arguably the greatest guitar school of all time — that would be British blues-rockers the Yardbirds, which also featured Eric Clapton and a pre-Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page — he decided to focus more on his craft than his fame. He doesn't sing; instead he lets such co-conspirators as Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger and Stevie Wonder wail.
Even if you've never heard of him, he's usually the most talented dude in the room, even a room full of Yardbirds.
"I wouldn't change a second of it," he says about his days in the seminal crew, best known for hits For Your Love and Heart Full of Soul. And yet: "I'm still bruised by that. I got sick all the time. I wasn't used to touring."
Beck is a funny, charming guy — for an enigma, that is. He's a modest fellow, humble about his artistry. And yet ask him which modern guitarists he admires and the list is short, really short: "There aren't too many guys making sounds and melodies that turn my head around. There isn't anyone with a complete mind-blowing style going on."
Ask him if he's still competitive with his fellow guitar heroes, and he references when Eddie Van Halen and Stevie Ray Vaughn first came on the scene: "I was like, 'I'll be around the corner waiting for you!' " So humble, but don't mess with him.
The more you talk with Beck, the more you realize pairing him with the 71-year-old Wilson, whom he calls "a genius," makes a certain crazy sense. Different sounds? Maybe. Different attitudes about bending convention and taking chances? No way. Neither one of them was made for these times, or any times.
"I've always been a huge Beach Boys fan," he says. "Pet Sounds really turned it around for me. They sang about girls and sunsets — for someone scrubbing around in dreary old England, it's what we needed."
Beck has foggy recollections of first meeting Wilson, supposedly at a show back in the mid '60s. It was a big bill, lots of acts, Yardbirds and Beach Boys included. He has a far clearer memory of meeting his hero that night, rock-guitar progenitor Chuck Berry, a mercurial guy but an idol nonetheless: "Chuck didn't care if we dropped dead in front of him!"
It was 2005, at a MusiCares tribute to Wilson, when the men formed a bond. Beck rather infamously played an instrumental reading of Surf's Up, one of Wilson's more woozy compositions. "It was nerve-wracking," Beck says. If you search the performance out on YouTube, you'll also see it's a masterpiece.
Wilson remembered the show, and recently asked Beck to join him in the studio. And that's when Beach Boys and Jeff Beck fans lit up the Internet with one question: "When's the tour?"
"I was somewhat concerned with the pairing at first," says Beck, who is cagey with details about the gig, although after doing separate sets, rest assured the gentlemen will almost certainly share the Ruth Eckerd stage. "I don't want the show to be too radical," he says. "I may have to alter my style a bit."
Actually, no. No, you don't. You're Jeff Beck.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.