story by Daniel Arnold | photos by Dorothy Hong
You know those PBS specials where a bunch of middling whites get together to wag their flabby underarms at some bloated, sequined, back-from-the-dead supergroup? Yeah, well Beck and friends at Angel Orensanz was kinda like that. But hold on, cuz I don't mean that in a bad way. Because really, Beck was fantastic. Inspiring even. But that show, the part where everybody clapped along to "Where It's At" - at least for me - was like this little peek into the distant future where all of us back-patting bloggers are like this leftover subculture a la conscientious objectors or astronauts or those 1920s dimes who stood on the wings of aeroplanes in flight for entertainment.
Anyway, Beck was great. His friends too (they were Matt Mahaffey - guitar, Justin Meldal-Johnsen - bass, Matt Sherrod - drums, Brian Lebarton - keys, and Ryan Falkner - maraca). The whole ramshackle deal was pretty thrown together - improvised and afterthought - and lit up all blue like a dream about VH1. They took and played the bejesus out of nearly every request and sat there all casual on a 100-yr-old bimah, lined-up like Mount Olympus. It was really goddamn cool. The kind where if 14-yr-old me were to catch a glimpse of it - of 26-yr-old me - he'd just about fucking puke himself. I didn't mean that cocky. I meant it self-deprecating.
Wouldn't you say that Beck breaks all the rules though? I mean, I guess that's what people like about him. What's gotten him this far. But let's take a little inventory here. A) He's a white guy who raps. B) A guy who, though he's clearly capable of writing that thoughtful singer-songwriter shit, churns out those awkwardly topical songs about like... technology? "Cell Phone's Dead?" That hasn't been OK since Graceland (unless you're Usher). C) He's a novel-carrying scientologist. And D) He lives in Los Angeles. But y'know what? He also plays slide on old Stones covers, sings like the blissfully euphoric half of a head cold and doesn't talk too much about any of it. And have you seen the guy? Could he be anything but a celebrity? No.
Should we talk about the show or what? Like I said, it was real laidback and improvised. Covered the spectrum: "Sissy Neck," "Cold Brains," "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometimes," "No Expectations," "Summer Girl," some divinely harmonied Nashville stomp about "Running Wild," you name it. Smirking in and out of a cowboy hat, he called out for keyboard solos midsong and mocked his rhythm section for slopping up the beat. And that rhythm section... Ooooooowee! (I'm sure everybody's saying this, so if you're bored, this'd be a good time to check out but) GREAT NASTY GODS OF HELL that rhythm section! Bottles and cans and just clap your hands. Forks and knives on calypso conga lines with cowbells and cans of beer. At one point the whole band shifts to a fully set dining room table and bangs out this sharky feeding frenzy of a beat that would play along to that sweat-soaked scene in most movies where the junkie tweaks out ecstatic and the lights all smear.
God I'm a big talker. Sorry about all that. Bottom line is, Beck breaks all the rules and this industry shit gets repetitive but motherfuck if that guy isn't one of the most talented we got. He can really shake 'em down. And when you throw all that into a 150-year-old neo-gothic cathedral, you got yourself some lonnngterm memories boy, I tell you what.