14 Jul 2017: The Greek Theater Berkeley, CA
It’s another summer Friday night at the Greek Theater in Berkeley with music fans wondering what the weather might do. The evening starts off warm and sunny, but the temperature drops quickly as the sun descends. It doesn’t deter the sell out crowd from filling up the Greek to see the man destined to tour America in a distant future with phenom robot washboard player Bender B. Rodriguez, as prophesied in a season three episode of Futurama. That tour ends with a “Bend-Aid” benefit concert for disabled robots in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, meaning attendees here might have some future kin that will witness the historic show.
Tonight’s show is not a benefit per se unless you consider Gen-X music fans receiving the spiritual benefits of getting to see a ‘90s music hero rock on instead of checking out as too many of Beck’s contemporaries sadly have. The bassist known as Thundercat opens the show with an odd set that weighs heavily in a prog-jazz direction that seems to be either over the heads of most in attendance, or just not their cup of tea. They clap at the end of the songs, but it seems like a mismatch with fans getting restless for the main event.
Beck gets the party started with “The Devil’s Haircut”, perhaps a nod to Bender’s acquaintance, the Robot Devil? “Black Tambourine” establishes a funky vibe, with Beck commenting at the end about making an effort to warm things up as the temperature continues to drop. The smash hit “Loser” attempts to bring the energy up further, yet most of the audience oddly remains seated. Here Beck encounters the sad truth that Bender Rodriguez and other performers will have to come to terms with, which is that the Berkeley Greek crowd isn’t quite what it used to be.
It’s something that current residents continue to have a difficult time fathoming, that the audience for Greek shows just isn’t what it used to be even as recently as a decade ago. The insane inflation of housing costs in the wake of the Silicon Valley tech boom has driven many of the younger music fans that use to flock to the Bay Area to seek more economical pastures in other hip music towns like Austin, Denver, Nashville, and Portland. Hence, the Greek shows this summer seem to have a much higher percentage of shoegazer tech bros and pseudo hipsters than it used to.
“Que Onda Guero” throws caution to the wind with a deep cut that seems to pay homage to East LA. It’s the kind of groovy tune that could theoretically get a dance party going, but here only for those down in the pit. The band is dialed in though, and the song rings out through Strawberry Canyon with a dynamic resonance. Beck poses a timely question when he asks what makes a “Soul of a Man”, as some fans might wonder why so many present seem to lack the soul to get up and groove. Not even the block rocking beats of “Mixed Bizness” can change this equation, except for the pit people who join with Beck to get down to the funky sounds.
Are the breezy acoustic melodies of “Lost Cause” commenting on this situation? “Say Goodbye” from 2014’s Morning Phase album continues the downtempo portion of the show, but it’s a gem as Beck shows a different side of his multi-dimensional musical persona with a tune that feels like it could have fit in at last month’s Ryan Adams show what with the dynamic guitar melodies. Likewise for “Heart Is a Drum”, another shimmery acoustic-oriented song that feels like it could come from the classic early ‘70s folk era.
“Girl” gets the dance party going again for those who came to dance, which is about one-quarter of the audience now. Maybe it has something to do with being closer to the action, but there’s a more encompassing effect for those down low than up top at the Greek (although certain jam bands smash this premise to smithereens.) The weirdness of 2016’s “Wow” sounds more like an annoying commercial pop jingle at first, so much so that Beck was reticent to give it to his label because he feared it was not up to par (though he apparently relented when his kids convinced him to give it a shot). The tune does evolve during the bridge when an infectious melody comes in, and Beck implores listeners to take stock of their life, singing “You gotta try to get it right, Look around, don’t forget where you came from…”
A contagious wave builds up from this part of the song and carries into the energetic “Dreams”, which has the pit people rocking out again as Beck dances around while sharp rhythmic guitar chords and striking synth melodies conjure a bit of a David Bowie vibe ala “Let’s Dance”. The almost disco soul sound of “Sexx Laws” closes the set with Beck doing a groovy Mick Jagger type of dance, but there’s still time on the clock and what looks like a big encore to go.
Beck does not disappoint here, as he welcomes Thundercat back to the stage for the extra sequence. Thundercat shows his value here, helping the band rock out on the classic “Where It’s At” for a raucous groove that truly seems to turn the clock back some 20 years. The time warp continues as great mashup follows with band introductions accompanied by high-energy teaser jams on Chic’s “Good Times”, “Bowie’s “China Girl”, the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster”, Gary Neuman’s “Cars” and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”. An oddly placed tribute to Michael McDonald feels a bit strange, although the audience eats it up. But Beck knows how to close a show the right way. The sonic blast of “E-Pro” gets the Greek going with its big beat and anthemic chorus to end the night with a bang.
With a video that features Beck’s disembodied head, it’s not hard to picture Bender and his pal Fry rocking out to this tune at Madison Cube Garden in the next millennium. Beck will truly cement his legend if he can pull off that show, although he may have to stray out of his pop culture comfort zone to get there. If pop stars don’t help rally the masses for political revolution and a clean energy future, the likes of Donald Trump and his fossil fuel puppet masters may well wreck the planet and turn the visionary future world of Futurama into the hellish nightmare of Mad Max: Fury Road. Beck and many others have shown that the power of music can take listeners back to the past, but can it help lead us to a better future? Only time will tell…
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