One of the most innovative and influential artists of the past decade, Beck, has left his band and his electricity at home for his current tour, opting instead for a very loosely organized set list, an acoustic guitar and a very intimate group of venues. I was lucky enough to sit in on one of these up close and personal looks at Beck last Friday when the star set up shop at Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Hall.
I walked into the venue just in time to catch a brief introduction from Beck and the opening notes of “Cold Brains” from 1998′s Mutations. Beck’s stage set up was basically a guitar, a microphone, a music stand, and a piano, but it was more than enough to get the job done. Though this tour is, I assume, in support of his forthcoming album, the set list wasn’t focused on new songs by any means. Instead, it was more of a chance for Beck to teach his fans about the good old days and to basically play whatever he damn well pleased. In the first hour or so, he covered Hank Williams’ “Lonesome Whistle,” played an old instrumental ragtime piece, sang “Happy Birthday” to Lauren from the audience, and grabbed a banjo for “Down on the Banks of the Ohio,” a traditional folk song. Throughout the evening, the young crowd interacted with Beck by shouting requests (some of which were met), asking questions and chuckling at his jokes.
Towards the second half of the two-and-a-half-hour concert, Beck introduced us to Smokey, who accompanied him on slide guitar. The pair got rolling with “Bottle of Blues” and a song from Beck’s forthcoming album that currently has a few working titles. Apparently, he had a couple of titles worked out, but The Flaming Lips heard it and offered a suggestion. Beck wouldn’t tell us though for fear of getting it ripped off. He then took the opportunity to tell the audience that when he comes back around later in the year, The Flaming Lips will be his backing band. Wow, that’s going to be amazing!
Beck did a bit of “storytelling” when he filled us in on the origins of “Canceled Check.” He said that he got the idea from a late night real estate infomercial whose motto was “life is a canceled check.” He and Smokey ended the show with a great version of “Tropicalia.” At the beginning of the song, Beck walked over to a drum machine, said “I’m gonna put this machine in Latin mode,” and the pair launched into the funky salsa tune. In the middle of the song, Beck went down into the audience and sat in an empty seat (probably the only one in the whole place) in the front row and chatted with the peeps sitting on either side of him. He asked if they like the show and, keeping with university theme, said, “What would you give the show, like a grade?” The two kids obviously said an “A,” but not just because they were being polite. The whole time Smokey continued to rock out with the drum machine. When Beck returned to the stage, his good energy continued. He introduced the crowd to the band, walking over the the drum machine saying, “this is our drummer Roland. He’s got fantastic buttons.” He and Smokey then said goodnight and walked off the stage to a resounding standing ovation.
The first encore came in the form of “Lazy Flies” and “Sing it Again” from Mutations. They took a bow again and walked off to another standing O, but were apparently not satisfied, as they returned for second encore to play “Dead Melodies,” walked off, and returned for a third encore. By the time the show was over, it was two and half hours long, though the time flew by – a very good sign.
Any Beck fan would love this show. It was so intimate and so personal and really felt more like you were hanging out with him in your family room than anything else. I talked with Beck very briefly after the show and he said that the whole idea behind this tour was to do something different. He changes up the set list every night and works with alternate arrangements to keep things fresh. Well, this was certainly different than any show I have ever seen. Mission accomplished.