Photography by Robert Altman
“We’re gonna start it out slow tonight,” Beck announced a bit apologetically at the beginning of his Monday night set at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom. “Then, once we do that, we’ll possibly get a little rowdy later on.”
There’s enough to admire about Morning Phase, the acoustic Sea Change reboot Beck’s still promoting. But he could be forgiven for getting bored of it. It’s dreary as hell — in a way that matches the frosty days of February, when it was released, far more than it does a summer tour — and it hardly suits Beck’s best onstage persona: loose, funky, prone to spur-of-the-moment adlibbing.
Still, he dutifully powered through the bulk of Morning Phase — “Blue Moon” sounded particularly lovely in front of what looked like a mega-screensaver’s worth of mountains and valleys — and two from Sea Change. (“Lost Cause”, which lasts three minutes and 37 seconds on record, must have taken all of a minute and a half — it felt like double the album tempo.) He was joined by most of the backing musicians from both records (Roger Manning, Joey Waronker, Roger Manning, Jason Falkner, among others), and together they captured the meticulously pastoral arrangements with stolidly rehearsed ease. Beck, growing the slightest bit impatient, bounced around stage during Manning’s banjo solo on “Say Goodbye”. I glanced at my watch.
Then: a burst of darkness, a momentary synth solo, and a flash of feedback, which eventually revealed itself to be the main riff from “Devil’s Haircut”. Beck was now wielding an electric guitar and suggestively half-moonwalking around the stage. The promised “rowdy” set — which lasted at least an hour and showcased some of the freshest bits of Odelay, Guero, and Midnite Vultures — was in effect.
I’d purposefully avoided glancing at recent setlists before the gig, so the career-spanning set was a surprise — just as it was an odd thrill seeing the Sea Change musicians blasting through tracks that sound like they were concocted by the Dust Brothers in a science lab. They played it loose and messed with the arrangements — opening “Black Tambourine” with an extended drum intro, playing up the noise in “Soul of a Man”, and reworking “Hell Yes” with live funk drums and jazzy keys. “Get Real Paid” was an immediate highlight, though you should never witness this song in a seated venue. (Have you tried to stay seated during Midnite Vultures? Never stay seated for Midnite Vultures.)
From there, things got fuzzy. Beck flubbed the lyrics to “Modern Guilt” (“You know the lyrics. There’s too much weed in here”) and funneled the lite-groove-y “I Think I’m In Love” into a brief disco coda teasing Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”. He dedicated “E-Pro” to a group of bronies he’d apparently encountered at a My Little Pony convention in Ohio. The song spun out in a squealing blaze, leaving at least two guitarists rolling around the floor and Beck inexplicably streaming a roll of caution tape across the stage like some impeccably dressed janitor.
Then fuzzier. A deliriously stretched out “Where It’s At” took up most of the encore. Sean Lennon (of Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, which played an especially early opening set while I was still trapped on an entrance line stretching beyond Ninth Avenue) streamed out for tambourine duties. “This is like the coming together of the planets,” Beck boasted as he introduced his band one-by-one, rambling over the song’s trademark organ swagger and eventually dipping into the “One Foot in the Grave” harmonica solo. His stage banter carried on: “My name is The Artist Currently Known As Beck,” he exclaimed in between keyboard solos and endearing white-boy dance moves and half-coherent rants about wanting to “fuck shit up.”
Oh — and yes, he did “Loser”. Of course he did “Loser”. It sounded fine — or as fine as it could with a live drummer earnestly sitting in for that dusty ’90s drum loop. I like that Beck didn’t make an event out of it, that he tucked it towards the beginning of the electric set instead of during the encore.
Later, on Twitter, I snarked that the best thing about seeing Beck in 2014 is seeing a married, 43-year-old man rhyme the lyrics to “Loser” in 2014. But that’s a joke, obviously. The best thing about seeing Beck in 2014 is that “Loser”, the song for which he first became famous, is not even one of the highlights.
The Golden Age
Heart is a Drum
Soul of a Man
The New Pollution
Get Real Paid
I Think I’m In Love –> I Feel Love (Donna Summer cover)
Where It’s At –> One Foot in the Grave (tease) –> Where It’s At