The stars in question for this concert did not inhabit the cloud-covered sky, but instead, Jeff Beck, Paul Rodgers and Ann Wilson staked out their individual orbits onstage at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., seemingly oblivious to the threat of thunderstorms on this humid Sunday night as they performed for a less-than-capacity — yet enthusiastic — crowd.
Heart singer Wilson touched off the headliners’ portion of the evening promptly at 7 p.m. with a high-octane version of The Who’s “The Real Me.” Wilson concentrated mostly on covers for her set, with one new solo song, “Fool No More,” and only one Heart standard, “Barracuda.” Wilson can still belt it out with the best of them, but she shined in her subtler approaches to songs such as Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” and Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black.” Stopping to lament the loss of so many artists over the past few years, Wilson delivered soulful acknowledgement to the late Glenn Frey of The Eagles with “Life in the Fast Lane” and Chris Cornell with Audioslave’s “I Am the Highway.” The set ended with another Who classic, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Beck followed and began with a series of guitar bursts that morphed into “Pull It” (from his 2016 album, Loud Hailer), which sounded like a short circuit in progress. This segued into excellent versions of the instrumentals “Stratus” and “Nadia,” showing off the 74-year-old Beck’s nimble power and skill with the tremolo bar.
Beck’s guitar fireworks, Vinnie Colaiuta’s drumming and Rhonda Smith’s bass-thumping solo provided the heft and depth to the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “You Know You Know,” a highlight of Beck’s 17-song set.
Except for introducing his bandmates, Beck did most of his talking with his guitar, a blinding white Fender Strat. Former Wet Willie singer Jimmy Hall (another frequent Beck touring companion) served up some soulful deliverance on Bonnie Dobson’s “Morning Dew” and the Stevie Wonder classic “Superstition.” The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Little Wing” was a showstopper, showcasing Hall’s reverential handling of the classic ’60s tune.
The only one of the headliners to do an encore, Beck concluded with Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol” and a stirring version of Don Nix’s “Going Down,” which raised the crowd response considerably.
The final star in line was Rodgers, who, closely approaching his 69th birthday, appears to be improving with age. His vocals were steady and boldly bracing, and his stage presence was exuberant. His set was almost split down the middle with songs from his days fronting the bands Free (seven songs) and Bad Company (six selections). Starting off with Free’s “Little Bit of Love,” Rodgers moved around the stage like a svelte caged lion king, spinning his microphone stand above his head like a ninja’s weapon, enticing the audience with all his might to join in the revelry. Free’s “Wishing Well” and “Fire and Water” were no-holds-barred performances, accented by guitarist Steve Bullick’s solid guitar work. The subtle arrangement of the Free songs “Mr. Big,” “The Stealer” and “Woman” were beautifully and delicately handled by Rodgers and his band, and were given respectful, but not overly enthusiastic applause. By contrast, the brazen and more-familiar Bad Company tunes “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “Can’t Get Enough,” “Shooting Star” and “Ready for Love” (with Rodgers urging the audience to join in) were more munificently received, with many patrons rising from their seats and applauding.
After a rousing version of “Movin’ On,” Rodgers and company launched into “Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy” and were joined near the end of the song by New Jersey native Steven Van Zandt, who grabbed a tambourine and stumbled into the fray to the crowd’s (and Rodgers’) delight. An overheated version of Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” was next, then Rodgers went for the jugular and ended with the Free classic “All Right Now.”
On a night when each performer worked hard to make the heavens quake, Rodgers and Beck stood out in extended sets showcasing their signature songs, drawing from the same historical lexicon of blues, rock and soul to chart their own individual courses. Wilson, with an abbreviated set, shined with cover tunes paying tribute to legends of the present and past.
— By Donald Gavron
Left to right: Ann Wilson, Jeff Beck and Paul Rodgers in Holmdel, N.J. Photos by Chris M. Junior