The term “artist” gets tossed around to flagrant proportions when referring to musicians as if somehow the two terms were synonymous with one another. Listening to what is left of terrestrial radio or a quick glance at the charts should be enough to shake anyone of such folly and demand a stricter code for combining the two. Yet, no matter how strict or soft your guidelines are, there should be no question where Beck would fall. Since the early ‘90s Beck has been blurring lines between musical genres and sounds. Everything he does, it seems, is with a distinct artistry that is all his own. The only consistency, or otherwise continuity, that can be found in his work is unpredictability. His music often defies true categorization and inhabits some vacant space on the fringe of whatever musical scene is of the moment. In a way, he has become a musical genre unto himself. So it is expected, perhaps, that he should eventually become his own source of inspiration. His latest release Modern Guilt—which paired him with producer Danger Mouse of Gnarls Barkley fame—found him traipsing around similar ground as Odelay and Guero (albeit in sound only as it is ultimately more focused in its direction and much darker in tone and lyrics).
If there is a flaw with Beck it may be that he has so many sides you can never be quite sure which one is going to turn up. In fact, the man himself really is an enigma. His physiognomy provides no glimpse behind the veil and I can’t watch an interview without waiting for that moment where he breaks mold, releasing a wry smile, or some sign that lets us in a bit more. As with his interviews, his live show can be delivered in a similar deadpan style that makes him appear disavowed or detached from the music, which can be off-putting to degrees. While this delivery worked to his advantage in the role of jilted lover during the Sea Change tour, it creates a strange distance from the audience for the more upbeat songs in his catalog.
2 Oct 2008: Aragon Theatre Chicago, IL
The Aragon show seemed extremely bare bones in comparison to past tours (Beck’s last round of shows included a puppet reenactment segment that played on video screens in place of the actual band). This time around it was Beck standing stoically behind the mic, a fedora sitting atop his shoulder length hair. There were a few oversized Hollywood-style set lights and an electronic screen behind the band with flashing lights, but it was very subdued and took a backseat to the music.
Kicking the show off with “Loser” served as a reminder of where this whole ride began. The band then raced into the jangled clatter of “Nausea” followed by “Girl”, a standout on 2005’s Guero. Live, Beck is at the point in his career where he has enough material to completely dismiss entire albums if he so desires, which was indeed the case with the beautiful and hugely underappreciated Mutations. For the most part he pulled material from his latest album and when he did it sounded superb. From the haunting tone of “Chemtrails” to the thick, dirty guitar on “Soul of a Man” the new material actually seemed to burn brightest. Of course, the night would not be complete without some moment of intrigue. This time it came via “Hell Yes”, which found the band converged at the front of the stage with mini keyboards and drum machines in hand. The moment felt a bit labored, though, and Beck himself even seemed somewhat disinterested in the presentation.
He seemed to have a similar regard towards the acoustic side of his repertoire, breezing through shortened versions of “The Golden Age” and “Lost Cause”, both from Sea Change, before running through a version of Hank Williams’ “Lonesome Whistle”. Even though he didn’t appear to be in these songs mentally, his voice certainly was as these tunes offered the best glimpse of just how well he can sing. He concluded the set with “Where It’s At”, a song that in many ways encapsulates Beck as a musician. After a brief break the band came back out led by the jagged guitar groove of “Gamma Ray”, which proved a perfect number to make one’s reentrance. The encore included a version of Bob Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, “Novacane” (complete with an ethereal guitar intro which just may have been the most memorable portion of the evening), “Profanity Prayers”, and closing with the upbeat “E-Pro”.
All in all, Beck’s catalogue is far too diverse and interesting to make for a bad show but it can still fall flat. When he is on he can electrify with ease and fluidity, which makes performances such as this feel just a bit lackluster.
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