Beck

[21 November 2006]

By A. L. Friedman

Ever since Bonnaroo ‘06, Beck has toured with marionette versions of himself and his band. The puppets do their thing on a little stage at the back of the big stage as two cameramen project the action on a big screen. Throughout the show, the puppets interact with the band, and one of them even leaves the stage to film real-life action on the “puppetcam.” The meta result is a lot like a live Michel Gondry video: images glow above the actual band, color-filtered and effects-processed into all kinds of mild psychedelic visuals. The men on stage are almost an afterthought.

Sure, Beck and his band are upstaged by these stylized facsimiles of themselves, but, puppets aside, other parts of the show are also tailored to divert attention from its star. At the Jersey Theater, Beck’s band flailed and rocked out in every way possible, but the singer himself stood stoically at center stage, flanked by a back-up dancer. Even if you weren’t watching the puppets, your eyes would train on the dancer or the enthusiastic, Robert Smith-looking bassist—anywhere but Beck himself.

Later, when Beck played an acoustic set, the rest of the band set up a table and proceeded to eat dinner. Beck serenaded them off to the side, managing to avoid the spotlight even while playing the only instrument on the stage. A handful of acoustic songs (one of which was a Rolling Stones cover) were the only all-eyes-on-Beck moments. And when the band erupted in a silverware-on-plate drum circle to accompany “Golden Age,” the singer once again became an afterthought.

Beck’s fame has always been a little mysterious. Not to detract from the great “Loser” or its near-perfect cousin, “Where It’s At,” but it’s really only his trademark facial expression—somewhere between childlike wonder and perpetual inspiration—that has saved his bizarre folk-rap from being dismissed as gimmick. If the genre-bending within the albums didn’t contort his musical message enough, the complete stylistic shifts between records (from Odelay to Mutations to Midnite Vultures) have made Beck a continually baffling figure. The wacky, irreverent Beck that penned “Sexx Laws” and “Hell Yes” overshadows the tender, folky Beck of “Cold Brains” and Emmylou Harris duets. Given the many personas that have made him famous, perhaps it’s not so surprising that he would cede the spotlight to some puppets. Maybe he too feels upstaged by the stylized facsimiles he’s created, and this is his way of acknowledging it.

If Beck is starting to think he’s not as weird as he made himself out to be, it would explain the set’s highlights, which were all straightforward numbers like “Girl”, “Black Tambourine,” and “Think I’m In Love.” The orchestration played down Beck’s usual robophonics, neutering “Hell Yes” and “We Dance Alone,” and turning “Nicotine and Gravy” and “Hotwax” into mid-tempo grunge romps. Fortunately, the spacey “Cellphone’s Dead” survived unscathed.

Of course, maybe the rock-heavy set is just a reflection of The Information’s tendency to sway in that direction. The new album is, after all, probably the singer’s best blend of his trademark pastiche-funk and more folky sides. It’s also possible that playing an extra show, added at the last minute, left our hero less energetic than usual. And, all things considered, he did open up for the encore, which included “1000 BPM” accompanied by band members in full bear costumes destroying a drumset.

But, watching Beck in Jersey City, one got the feeling that he was distancing himself from everything around him. At album number ten and on the wrong side of 35, maybe Beck is tired of being a curiosity—his never-ending quest to harmoniously combine new traditions with old forever tainted by the joke singles that made him famous. But despite what “Loser” hath wrought, the rest of the band put on a decent show. And so did the puppets.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/beck/