On Saturday July 23rd, as Lance Armstrong awoke for another day of effortless domination in his tour of France, Beck took the stage to round out his own tour, of California. In front of two stage-sized projection screens, deftly manipulated in real time by Tokyo video-DJ Bunzo, Beck effortlessly held a sold-out audience captive and captivated. Seriously, he made little effort.
Signs came early that the show would hold surprises. Beck introduced the fourth song by yelling, “Hot Wax!”, and his band popped into action. As “Hotwax,” from 1996’s Odelay came to a close, the band segued seamlessly into an abridged version of “Nicotine & Gravy”, from 1999’s Prince-inspired Midnight Vultures. Then they broke down a few hip-hop verses over a mouth-beat and burst into “Hell Yes”, a single from Beck’s newest release, Guero. Beck kept his arrangement tight, and didn’t stray from the songs—he neatly linked his three “party” albums with a medley that triumphed despite the danger of creating a sprawling, directionless Grateful Dead-like jam.
But, to be picky, something was missing. Right before “Hotwax”, Beck said, “This is the last night of our tour, so we’re stripped down… we’re… inoculated.”
Stripping down wasn’t necessarily the problem: a vast majority of the truly triumphant songs at this show were the ones Beck played alone. The problem lay in his more rollicking works. With six band members on stage (his long-time bass player, Justin Meldal-Johnsen was in the audience with wife and child.), the instrument assignments seemed haphazard. One member, “The world’s greatest dancer,” didn’t actually play an instrument and the guitarist often left his ax to hammer percussion, despite the presence of two other drummers. And the keyboard player manned recorded samples of missing instruments more than his own keyboard. Who else was there to play guitar sounds? Three people were drumming and Beck was holding a black tambourine.
Missing the awesome (real) horn sections that Beck used to produce songs like “Sexx Laws” and “The New Pollution”, the tunes were less performed and more like six people dancing to a CD. Not employing a full horn section for a small tour is understandable, but during “Loser”, a song based on an acoustic guitar and a simple drumbeat, two people played drums while the group sampled the guitar. During “Sexx Laws” Beck and the Dancer put on banjos and pretended to duel while a banjo sample played, effectively flaunting the fact that a fair amount of the show was pre-recorded.
Of course, what made the show unique, and exciting, was the presence of the stripped down songs—the “inoculated” ones. To show that you can do a lot with a little, a stage hand brought out a hand-pumped harmonium. Known for their drone, these western instruments are commonly used in Indian music. One hand pumps bellows behind the instrument while the other hand voices chords on a typical keyboard. Keeping to a simple chord progression, Beck sang “Lonesome Tears”, as if it were a ritual chant, while his band-mates gathered at his side, heads bowed. Toward the end of the song, they stomped and clapped slowly to its beat. The song, smothered by string arrangements and overproduction on 2001’s Sea Change, took a weightier shape on stage.
Few would argue: the long acoustic set toward the end of the show was its crowning moment. It’s hard to hold the attention of a large number of people with an acoustic guitar. And it’s even harder to stop a show, make the band leave, play an acoustic set, and manage to come off without seeming self-indulgent.
Beck, a master songwriting, doesn’t need to worry about this sort of thing, but chose to cleverly address it anyway. As he took an acoustic guitar, crew members brought out a table and his dancer changed from his ‘70s Tennis outfit into a suit. He set plates and glasses on the table and waited on the band members as they began to play poker. Beck did his songs, and his band members (actually) ate a meal on stage as they listened.
After a few acoustic versions of songs from Sea Change and a cover of “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime”, by ‘80s one-hit-wonders The Korgis (Beck’s version is featured in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Beck surprised the audience with an acoustic cover of the faux-R&B crowd-pleaser, “Debra”. The song is set in LA, and was received by cheers at the mention of parking structures in Glendale, and Zankou Chicken. Beck played to the crowd, extending the song by making up verses on the spot.
Finally, he finished his mini-set with “The Golden Age”, another ballad from Sea Change. The band took notice, and began hitting their plates and glasses with their utensils. One member rubbed the rim of his glass to produce hums that added an oddly hypnotic edge to the song. The dinner table quickly turned into a bona fide percussion section and Beck switched into the fun, jolting “Clap Hands” from Guero, causing his band to break into hammering that gave the members of Stomp a run for their money.
What’s saddening is that Los Angeles probably won’t see a better show for quite some time, and that the people performing paraded the fact that they were sort of half-assing it. But maybe that’s not a fair comment. Maybe they were tired. To use terms Lance Armstrong or another athlete might use, it’s hard to know exactly what to make of someone who is known for bringing 150% to his live shows on the nights when he only brings 110%.