Human Interest: Magic at the Michigan Theater

“People get ready there’s a train a’ comin’…”
Jeff Beck (et al) act brings the magic in Ann Arbor
by David Spencer

Jeff Beck et alA demure woman walks up in this 1950s Barbara Billingsly emerald green dress with her cute little pony tail hanging, in high heels and starts to beller out the old hit Poor Boy. OMG… do I love the dress, do I love the voice… is it because she is sooooooo sultry and soulful… yes, yes and yes!


Well, as always, when something I see or do overwhelms my senses and expectations I have to share and write about it and last night I experienced something that did both. So much so when I got home late I jumped on the computer and started to research. That title is a quote from a Rod Stewart remake of an incredible tune Beck did back in the 1980s. The engineer on that train was Jeff Beck. Okay, wait, this started out as an email to my west coast bud Gregg, yeah you remember Gregg the cat that took me to the Fillmore. But first I should fill in the blanks a bit.

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Let’s go back a little with some background. My buddies Tom and Brian asked me if I would like to go see Jeff Beck in Ann Arbor. I am like sure, I have followed Beck for the past 35 years and he is the master of fusion jazz, experimental guitar work, all kinds of cool stuff. Brian’s bro Pat is an exec down at Gibson so I know these tickets are going to be awesome. So I don’t think much of it, didn’t even know the venue, and time goes by then BANG… lets go! So we head to Ann Arbor and do the dinner thing and cocktails and I am like this should be good and blah….but nothing prepared me for what I was going to see.

Michigan TheatreFirst, the venue: The old vaudeville/movie theater called the Michigan Theater. Rejuvenated in the 80s to a ornate palace it once was, with all its black walnut real paneling half its length then returning to its molded walls to the stage. She holds a whopping 1700 including the balcony when she is sold out and trust me last night she was at capacity. A beautiful old gal birthed in 1928 and thank God saved from the wrecking balls of the 70s and 80s.

The show… we are seeing some rock-a-billy opening act that is cool but I still haven’t put two and two together yet. Why a rock-a-billy band?  Well this is supposed to be a bit of a tribute to Les Paul sooo… mmmmm… okay.  Oh, David you are so naïve! So here we are Row 17 Center between the sound board and the stage, eye level nothing can be better, when out walks this cat that looks like Elvis and two of his childhood buddies…

I’m like what the hell, although in the midst is the little man, Jeff Beck. Now wait a minute this makes no sense, three cats dressed in 1950s clothes and then Jeff Beck wearing his jammin’ attire. This li’l cat with the wide-lapel 50s suit can’t be taller than 5’ 4” picks up a standup bass and starts banging on it like he is fist fighting a six-foot-tall man and he’s winning. The li’l fella tears into that bass like a pit bull terrier and it is awesome.

The band starts, Beck is fiddling around nothing big, then this cat that looks more like Elvis than Elvis breaks into some old rock-a-billy tunes and he is good. BAM… back to the future I am thinking. This is what the early rock-n-roll shows were like. I mean we got the theater, the dress, the music… except one beautiful thing… Jeff Beck adding his incredible signature licks. So they play a couple of tunes and I see this shade of green walking from the side behind the amps and players.

A demure woman walks up in this 1950s Barbara Billingsly emerald green dress with her cute little pony tail hanging in high heels and starts to beller out the old hit, “Poor Boy.” OMG… do I love the dress, do I love the voice… is it because she is sooooooo sultry and soulful… yes, yes and yes! She’s Imelda May and the band is the Imelda May Band. Who? You got it, a four-piece group straight from Ireland who plays old standards and rock-a-billy damned near better than the originals. And Jeff Beck is putting in the salt and pepper on top of it?  OMG… this is soooooo awesome. The Les Paul and Mary Ford originals they play are spot-on and pay homage to both of their incredible talents.

This goes on and on and Beck plays true to Les’s style. Also a few Elvis tunes, old standards that Jeff tears up and adds his own spice, which sounds incredible.

Me and my buds ‘re blown away… this little 5’6” without-heels-on woman belting out music you can’t imagine her body will muster and doing it so sultry, so perfect on timing, with moves like a cat waiting to pounce. She knows her craft to perfection. So after her five-to-six tunes she disappears and receives a well earned round of the crowd’s joy.

Now Imelda is quite the star in her own right back in Europe, as far as the public goes, which I found out as I researched after the show.  The band—these cats are accomplished, polished to the tee, playing some tough-time signatures and playing them fast. The drummer, whoa, this cat is working for his dinner… but he’s like an atomic clock and misses nothing on the tempo and breaks. And the horn section… when is the last time you heard a baritone sax?

A few songs later here she comes again… in a leopard-print strapless glued on dress with her pony tail trailing behind her. I think I hear every male in the crowd exhale when she comes out, for it was… okay this is a family email. Some more incredible standards she belts out and the show is over… wait… no it isn’t: one encore, two.

The second one Imelda breaks into the most heartfelt, heart-tugging version of “Oh Danny Boy” I have ever heard. It was set to a tempo with a slow swing to it… and my eyes watered up like a little boy whose lost his puppy dog. As buddy Tom says, “not a dry eye in the crowd.” Then the third and final encore in which they play an old Elvis tune and give every musician a solo, including my little bulldog friend beatin’ that bass like a stepbrother. This cat is playing 16th notes on a stand up… woooohoooooo!

Then it was over. I was grinning ear to ear. I had heard it all, sleep walking, Poor Boy, all the great 50s standards in a 50s environment… it was time to return back to the future. Jeff Beck… you never know what you are going to see, he is experimental and true to his craft. He plays because he loves to play, not to bring attention to himself, not to be “the man.” He loves music and he loves all of it. It was obvious. As we left the back of the theater, they were already loading the truck for a show in Chicago the next night. I can’t recommend this show any higher than I have, if you dig Jeff Beck, if you dig the late 40s and early 50s tunes, whatever, you MUST go see this show!

To my friend Tom… it was a gas… Brian, outstanding and send thanks to your bro for the tickets… and Bruce… a pleasure! Oh and to my buddy Gregg… yeah, in San Francisco… you remember the cat that took me to the Fillmore?… hey, buddy get ready there’s a train a’ comin’……and it’s stopping at the Fillmore in beautiful San Francisco April 9th… “don’t need no ticket……you just get on board.” A must-see!

Check YouTube for Jeff Beck/Imelda May clips of her singing Poor Boy.

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1 thought on “Human Interest: Magic at the Michigan Theater

  1. Hey, Brian thanks so much for posting my experience at the Michigan. It was an awesome night of magic for sure. I am writing a lil ditty on this amazing woman bass player Tal Wilkenfeld. She plays with Clapton, Jeff Beck. Not only is she talented beyond belief but she is just 18. Coming at you soon. Until then, keep perking and keep up the good fight my brother some of us actually like this country….just not in the state it is. Later

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