Eric Clapton & Jeff Beck, Together & Apart, The O2, London

Heroes together are a class apart
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The Independent Culture

The names Clapton, Beck and Page have assumed a hallowed status since they blessed The Yardbirds with some of the most startling and influential guitar parts of the Sixties. Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page played in the same line-up for a while but save for some brief encounters at charity benefit shows in the Eighties, Beck and Eric Clapton had not, until this tour, performed together.

So this alliance of the two axe heroes of their age was an opportunity which no self-respecting air-guitar aficionado could miss. Not that there were many axe-hero moves to ape, both guitarists being the kind of technicians who let their fingers do the talking while their bodies remain comparatively still. The excitement resided in the sound, not the show.

Before they closed the show together, each played an hour-long set with their own band, in which the differences in their styles, magnified by close-up screen shots of dazzling fret- and finger-work, were made evident. Both played Strats, but in strikingly different manners: while Clapton used a plectrum, Beck employed a long thumbnail for the most part, his fingers dallying delicately over the tremolo arm with which he inscribed those long, aching passages, rock's closest equivalent to a dying swan. Clapton eschewed the whammy bar in favour of dauntingly precise string-bending, stretching notes fluidly into one another.

With a small orchestra augmenting his power-trio, Beck's set was partly drawn from his forthcoming Emotion & Commotion album, being a characteristic mix of whizz-bang funk-rock licks stuffed with stunt-guitar phrases, such as "Led Boots" and "Hammerhead", and subtler pieces like "Corpus Christi Carol" and a beautiful version of the Irish air "Mna Na Heireann", performed with the violinist Sharon Corr. The singer Joss Stone appeared for incendiary runs through "There's No Other Me" and "I Put A Spell On You", she and Beck egging each other to ever more dynamic delivery. The most impressive female performer of the evening, however, was surely Beck's new bassist, Rhonda Smith, a statuesque slap-bass virtuoso whose hands were a constant blur alongside the Uncle Fester-esque drummer Narada Michael Walden.

Beck's set closed with a hauntingly beautiful version of "A Day In The Life", which combined his hard and soft techniques, before a seated Clapton eased into his own set with a few gentle acoustic blues numbers, Charles Brown's "Driftin' Blues" leading into a relaxed "Layla". After he strapped on his trademark light-blue Strat it was a short while before optimum sound-balance was achieved, but by the time his choppy offbeats led into "I Shot The Sheriff" everything was running perfectly. This was quite brilliant, a seamless blend of high-end soloing and funky low-end chording, essayed with a fluidity that was simply sensational, a reminder that true guitar artistry is not simply a matter of speed or technique – both of which he has in spades – but depends more on taste and subtlety, elements which are abundantly available to the mature Clapton.

Clapton's crowd-pleasing classics like "Cocaine", "Wonderful Tonight" and a taut, funky "Crossroads" were followed by a third set, of Beck and Clapton together, with loose, limber blues like "Shake Your Moneymaker" and "You Need Love" interspersed with gentler pieces like "Moon River", on which Beck demonstrated his peerless, delicate way with sustain. A rousing run through Sly Stone's "I Want To Take You Higher" brought things to a head before Clapton sprang a little surprise by leading into an encore of "Hi Ho Silver Lining", the hit so disdained by Beck, who nevertheless laid down a brusque, bruising solo break and sang a verse in good humour, chuckling in embarrassment. As the two guitar greats strolled off, smiling, arm in arm, we were left to wonder if any comparable guitar summit would ever happen again. Maybe with Jimmy Page completing the great Yardbirds lineage? Just a thought...