My first experience with Beck happened when I was 10 years old, standing too close to the television back when MTV still played music videos. It was the first time I had ever heard Spanish in popular music and I was in awe as I stood there watching this scrawny, white stoner with long, straggly hair yell about Cheez Whiz and being a loser in my grandmother’s native tongue. I might not have known it yet, but I was hooked.
When Beck nimbly ran out on stage in his skinny black pants and matching blazer Thursday night, I felt the same sense of wonderment come over me as he began the oh-so-recognizable guitar riff in “Devils Haircut.” A red and white matrix of numbers 1 to 10 flashed big and bright behind him. From where I stood Beck Hansen hardly looked a day older than the first time I met him in my living room nearly two decades earlier. He was quick and energetic, hopping up and down eagerly while swaying his guitar against and away from his hip.
Soon he swapped guitars, pulled out a dark, wide brim hat and placed it on his head. Although his almost shoulder-length hair was cropped short now, I recalled the cover of his latest album, Morning Phase. The drums kicked up alongside the thumpy “Black Tambourine” bassline executed perfectly by Justin Meldal-Johnsen, Beck’s touring and recording bassist better known as JMJ. Beck wrapped his hands around the microphone and began the low mutters of what is one of Guero’s less appreciated tracks. Then drawing his mouth close, lips grazing the mic, the boyish 40-something took us back to ‘94 with the jangly, psych-folky “Beercan” singing “going on, feelin’ strong” backed by a screen of psychedelic turtles dancing in the background. It was with this first trio of songs that Beck set the mood for the evening, almost knowing there would be some hesitation from the audience as to whether or not we were in for a mellow night comprised mostly of somber tunes from his latest record. This was not the case and from the way he moved on stage it was hard to tell he ever suffered the spinal cord injury that contributed to his six-year hiatus after Modern Guilt. Nope, Beck wanted the audience to know his tambourine was still shaking.
The next few songs were crowd pleasers, the tracks that made us all fall in love with Beck’s unique and widely-influenced, hodge podge sound. With “Que Onda Guero” Beck brings to life a stroll through a Spanish neighborhood on a sunny California afternoon, especially sentimental to me since his hometown of downtown L.A. is not unlike the border town of El Paso where I grew up. Moving on to a track that perfectly displays the diversity of 2005’s Guero, Beck started the hip-hop influenced “Hell Yes” by calling out to the crowd “if it’s a Thursday night down in Houston and you really don’t give a damn, say ‘hell yes!’” The audience roared and he continued “if you got something inside you just can’t contain, and it’s pulsing through your bones, through your skin, you gotta get it loose say ‘hell yeah!’” The room perked up and waited eagerly to replace the electronic 8-bit sample from the recorded track with their own positive affirmations – HELL YES! Riding the momentum, Beck kept the energy in the room high with “Gamma Ray” bouncing around on stage to the vibrant bassline like a rosy-cheeked nymph from outer space, he moved easily through “Think I’m in Love” and back into Modern Guilt with the garage rockin’ “Soul of a Man.”
Before I knew it, Beck started to slow it down. The mood in the audience got pensive and nostalgic. Everyone bittersweetly recalled the last time they had their hearts broken when he sang “oh don’t leave me on my own.” The banjo in “Blue Moon” kept us grounded but it became impossible to feel anything but heartache when he sandwiched “Lost Cause” between yet another track from Morning Phase, Beck’s latest record and what some people consider the Sea Change companion album.
With just a few bleeps and bloops, the Nintendocore “Girl” drug us out of our murky depths. The audience was back to swaying their weight between each foot and singing “my sun-eyed gurrrl urrl urrl” as Beck whipped around the mic cord like a scarf in the breeze. He used the catchy favorite to close out the set and the lights went dark for just a second before the entire venue began to beg for more. He didn’t make us wait long before he was out again for his encore, taunting the audience by pretending to misunderstand our screeches, “what’s that” he teased, “you want to hear about tax laws?” Finally, after the audience shouted “Sexx Laws!” at least three times, he began the awkward yet irresistibly sexy banjo-filled diddy from Midnight Vultures. He slyly slided back and forth on his feet, the microphone cord acting as jump rope for ghosts as he danced excitedly across the stage. Roger Manning moved out from behind the keyboards and hit the front stage with banjo in hand, then Beck interluded to introduce us to his band.
The Midnight Vultures mood continued as Beck ushered us into “Debra” with a sultry falsetto while Smokey Hormel made the audience sweaty with his sensual guitar picking. The audience went nuts and I realize no one could ever make a song about JCPenney sound as provocative as Beck, save for David Bowie. Even so, whoever Debra and Jenny are, it was hard to decide if I wanted to be them or ask them into my Hyundai. Just before my thighs could get any warmer, the familiar melody of “Where It’s At” started and Beck turned back into funky, white boy rapper. The guitarists stepped in line with Beck middle stage and danced side to side in synchronization, the crowd clapped along, singing “I’ve got two turntables and a microphone.” They finished the lo-fi hit after a quick turn on their feet.
Fingers slid against steel strings, “in the times of chimpanzees I was a monkey” Beck shouted into the mic, sounding as much like a restless slacker as he did in the 90’s. He continued on with the nonsensical ramblings we used to memorize in middle school to impress our friends, “cuz one’s got a weasel and the other’s got a flag,” when the time is right the audience chants in unison “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?” Beck still performs the song with a perfect balance of lazy, feigned apathy and self-deprecating charm.
The show concluded with Guero’s first single and #1 hit, “E-Pro.” The killer guitar riffs, commanding drums and ever catchy “na na na na na na na” chorus made it a perfect closer. The entire crowd was off the ground, the energy peaked as they sung along. Beck jumped up and down, fiercely strumming his guitar, lights beamed off and on, illuminating the venue in bright flashes. Then, just like that the song was over in what felt like under a minute. Beck ran over to grab a spool of yellow crime scene tape and began to hang it it, carefully attaching it to the speakers on either side of the stage. “DO NOT CROSS” it read as he put an end to the show he absolutely killed.
Listen to Beck’s setlist below.
Review of opener Jenny Lewis’ performance here.
Melissa Vega is not one of those people that needs coffee every morning but one of those people that needs music every morning. There’s just something about trumpets sounding while the sun is rising that gets her out of bed every day. She wonders if her love for music will ever be a talent she will actually realize beyond being really excellent at singing in the shower. She can be summed up in a single lyric from Wilco’s “She’s a Jar”: “when I forget how to talk, I sing.”