Better Than: Streaming Lollapalooza on your laptop.
“You wore me out,” Beck told the crowd last night as he sat down on the stage near the end of his two-hour performance at Prospect Park Bandshell, as a benefit for the excellent Celebrate Brooklyn series. Considering the fact that during his lengthy set, the 43 year-old singer-songwriter drew from nearly every album in his massive catalog, the statement felt appropriate.
From classic party-starters like “Where It’s At” and “Loser” to the reflective folk of Sea Change tracks like “Lost Cause,” all the hits were well-represented. At times, it felt more like a 20 year retrospective on one of the most important artists of our generation rather than just a typical concert.
In the past two decades, Beck has incorporated nearly every genre into his music–from disco to country, and even lo-fi and post-punk most recently on Modern Guilt. But recently, he’s alternated between acoustic and electric sets to varying degrees of success. By all accounts, his acoustic set at Le Poisson Rouge was phenomenal (then again, what big name artist isn’t phenomenal in a 700 capacity venue?). On the other hand, his set at Newport Folk Festival seemed downright stale. With more than half of Beck’s catalog, heavy rhythm is the instant appeal, and without that tracks like “Loser” go completely out the window.
Luckily, last night’s performance was fully electric in more ways than one. For most of the crowd, however, openers Adam Green and Binki Shapiro seemed little more than background music. Originating from the same L.A. freak folk scene that Beck grew out of, the duo performed an hour-long set containing tracks from their self-titled debut, released earlier this year. While extremely polished and well-rehearsed, their unoriginal music leaves much to be desired.
There’s a difference between integrating influences and acquiring them. A solid performer can hear an entire album and then play it back for you in their own unique way, while others will play it just as it sounds. I don’t doubt their sincerity, but Adam Green and Binki Shapiro have incorporated Serge Gainsbourg’s influence like sewing a patch onto a jacket. As a result, most of their music comes off like a bland nostalgic mish-mash of folk and French pop.
Beck may have twice as much as experience, but he’s always been more adept at filtering influences through his own weird hillbilly hipster lens. As soon as the first few notes of “Devil’s Haircut” hummed through the speakers, it was as if someone fired a gun in the air. Everyone’s attention was drawn to the stage and it pretty much stayed there for the next two hours.
Beck danced around on stage in a black Dior suit against the backdrop of a vibrantly colored lightshow, consisting of six large wheels that alternated between windmill and firework patterns. After the first four songs, all from separate albums, he broke out a sublime cover of “Tainted Love,” which blended neatly into “Modern Guilt.” During “Soldier Jane” the lights illuminated the trees surrounding the stage, highlighting the beauty of the venue.
Making the performance even more enjoyable was Beck’s four-piece band, made up of musicians he collaborated with on Sea Change. During “Lost Cause,” the instrumentation expanded to become even more soothing and atmospheric, with the musicians already instinctually familiar with the original composition.
While Beck’s energy and stage presence were certainly impressive, even more remarkable was the way he reinvented classics like “Loser” and “Think I’m In Love.” With “Loser” being over 20 years old, you’d think most of the potential for improvisation would’ve been wrung out long ago, but somehow he came up with a fresh new spin, reversing the vocals and adding an echo halfway through to make it sound like the result of a bad acid trip (or a really good one). For “Think I’m In Love,” he tacked on a riveting instrumental breakdown to the end.
After a song from his recently released sheet-music album Song Reader, he moved on to his second cover of the evening, “Billie Jean,” before closing out with “Sissyneck.” Seeing as it was only 9:30 and the sound curfew wasn’t until 10, the crowd wasn’t budging. It was only a couple minutes before he came back on stage and encored with “E-Pro” and “Where It’s At,” the latter extending to over 10 minutes.
Walking past a hula-hooper and several middle-aged couples dancing horribly and unashamed, I almost felt like I was at some kind of carnival. Touring as infrequently as he does, Beck’s concerts are starting to become legends themselves. It’s gotten to the point where if you miss a show, you’re looking at another five years before he comes around again. If he toured more often, his fanbase would surely evolve into something as cultish and dedicated as Phish’s, but as it stands, it seems Beck enjoys keeping the experience more intimate. As a concert-goer, you can’t really ask for more than that.
Critical Bias: “Loser” and “Real Muthaphukkin G’s” were my two favorite songs on music video channel The Box (RIP).
Overheard: “I’m so hungover I feel like I’m floating.”