Collaboration is an idea that has frequently informed the career of English guitarist Jeff Beck, who worked in the Yardbirds and Jeff Beck Group before recording albums with artists like Jan Hammer, Jed Leiber, Imelda May and more, en route to American album sales of more than five million over nearly six decades.
His latest studio album 18 sees the legendary guitarist working closely with actor and musician Johnny Depp, best known for a filmography responsible for three Oscar nominations as well as work with artists like Shane MacGowan, Iggy Pop, Oasis and supergroup the Hollywood Vampires (which pits him alongside Alice Cooper and Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry).
Released this past July, 18 finds the duo crafting a pair of original compositions while putting their own spin upon eleven covers ranging anywhere from the sun-drenched pop of the Beach Boys to the post punk goth rock of Killing Joke.
The album acts as the centerpiece of their current tour, one which makes its way across the U.S. into mid-November (ahead of newly announced European dates for Depp with Hollywood Vampires in 2023).
Most of the new album is instrumental, with Depp lending vocals to a handful of tracks. The pair mostly stuck to that format onstage Sunday night at the Chicago Theatre, a performance where banter was at a minimum.
“Thank you!” said Beck following “Big Block.” “Johnny! That’s Johnny!” he said at the show’s conclusion, pointing left at the guitarist, Depp adding only vocals as the duo opted to let the music do the talking over the course of 90 minutes.
Backed by a powerhouse three piece group (drummer Anika Nilles, bassist Rhonda Smith and keyboard player Robert Stevenson), Beck got things underway, Depp joining the ensemble about halfway through for six songs before returning during the encore.
While Depp was content to cede center stage to Beck, Beck was equally generous to his bandmates, allowing the trio’s latent jazz backbone to shine throughout.
Beck reworked the classic “Freeway Jam” to open the show, putting the hook front and center. Arms spread wide, he flashed a huge smile as the song drew to a close, this year’s dates marking his first performances since 2019.
Beck sauntered left, approaching his band as “Loose Cannon” got underway next. Smith had her left foot up on the drum riser as the two time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer glanced over his left shoulder and back, beaming at his band before raising his right arm in triumph at the song’s conclusion.
Stevenson’s keyboards sparkled during an atmospheric intro to “Midnight Walker,” the new album’s finest moment and one highlighted by Beck’s soulfully deliberate picking on it Sunday night in Chicago.
Sunglasses on, Beck’s playing sat in as the Brian Wilson vocal on a delightful cover of the Beach Boys’ “Caroline No,” the guitarist shifting to the talk box during Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues” later.
Beck really locked in with Smith during “Big Block,” early shredding giving way to bluesier licks as the song progressed, the strength of the rhythm section on full display. But nowhere was the power of the band clearer than during “You Know You Know,” a Mahavishnu Orchestra cut which featured extended drum and bass solos by both Nilles and Smith.
“It’s great to be back here in Chicago,” said Beck following “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers.” “Better have some help with this next one,” he said as Depp, looking every bit the part of a rock and roll vagabond made his way to the stage for the first time Sunday donned in a scarf, sunglasses and hat.
“We love you, Johnny!” began an almost non stop barrage of affection for the actor and musician. Some fans were clad in Pirates of the Caribbean cosplay, putting forth a continuous cacophony of cries, screams, shrieks and wails throughout the rest of Sunday night’s concert.
Beck and Depp conjured up images of a bygone era as they got underway together with a rollicking take on Link Wray’s “Rumble,” Depp, 12 string acoustic in hand, adding a lead vocal to the new “This is a Song for Miss Heady Lamarr” next.
Jacket off and back on electric guitar, Depp grabbed the microphone with both hands, leaning into an early vocal on John Lennon’s “Isolation,” the duo’s first single and a collective high spot Sunday night.
With a quiet intro to Dennis Wilson’s “Time” screamed over entirely by the surreal assembly, the duo headed for encore with a psychedelic, instrumental take on The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” Depp on acoustic as Beck laid waste to a series of electric solos, moving from soft to loud, playing slower then fast, guitar in the air as he walked off stage. Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” was an encore highlight soon after.
Armed with only a harmonica and acoustic guitar, singer songwriter Desure captivated the sold out crowd over the course of a half hour opening set, kicking off with “Cocaine Smile” before setting down the harmonica for “Coming Down.”
Desure, who met Depp while working at a tattoo shop, put forth an infectious cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” before moving on to “Kick Rocks” and the new single “Threads.”
“I’ve been on the road with these guys for 14 dates. This is the last night,” said Desure on stage at Chicago Theatre. “It’s bittersweet. But to end it in such a beautiful venue is OK.”