M3F Day One: Beck
By Jason Shoff
Which Beck would we be getting? That was my main question leading up to his performance Friday night at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival. After all, he’s one of the most versatile musicians in rock, an artist that can go from Dust Brothers-produced alternative hip hop to the second coming of Prince to a folk troubadour in the vein of Nick Drake, all while sounding utterly convincing and authentic in each. In fact, in the span of one year he’s released both the mellow singer/songwriter album Morning Phase (which one him a Grammy for Album of the Year) and the dance rock summer single “Dreams,” which is (in my opinion) one of his best songs, if not his catchiest. So on a night where he had no album to promote, what kind of show (and what kind of Beck) would he treat last night’s audience to?
Well as soon as the opening notes of “Devil’s Haircut” started to play (which gained in guitar muscle what it lost a bit in the studio version’s layered, sampled production), it was clear that Beck and his band were in full-on party mode, determined to show everyone in the crowd a good time with set-list full of hits and his most upbeat tracks. After faithful versions of the ‘70s funk of “Black Tambourine” and Odelay staple “The New Pollution,” the incredibly catchy ‘60s pop of “Think I’m in Love” made me realize how much I’ve totally neglected the tune, and the straight-up disco of “Mixed Bizness” had me pondering why I don’t have Midnite Vultures up higher in my Beck album ranking.
Many of the songs also benefited from a live setting, as well, and had some new life breathed into them with different arrangements. After introducing it by saying that the festival named a drink after it (one which Beck seemed to approve of), “Gamma Ray” sounded more like an ‘80s new wave track pulled from the Tron soundtrack than the ‘60s rock vibe it had on Modern Guilt. “Go it Alone” was given a good dose of Queens of the Stone Age swag, “Qué Onda Guero” has the kind of bass that you’d expect in the production a Rihanna club banger, and “Soul of a Man” benefited from some extra grit and distortion. The set was also livened up throughout with his absolutely charming charisma and dance moves, which reminded me of that uncle everyone has that dances to his favorite jams after one too many drinks at a family get together (and I mean that in the best way possible).
There was a break in the party, though, with an utterly gorgeous rendition of “Lost Cause.” After promising to come back and play a set that focuses more on material from Morning Phase (and I’m holding you to your word, Beck), he then launched into another Sea Change track with “Paper Tiger.” Though I did miss the lush orchestration of the album version, it gained some nice atmospherics, the biting leads and squalling feedback leading to a thrilling guitar-fueled crescendo. But then it was back to the party at hand with “Dreams” (which translates incredibly well live) and an incredibly heavy version of “E-Pro” that closed out the main set (which featured some added Talking Heads-style funk added to its verses for good measure).
Now I was hoping that he’d reach into some of his deep tracks for the encore, and he definitely surprised me by opening it with the country blues dirge of “Jackass” and an all-out blues rock version of “Sissyneck” that sounded more like Gary Clark, Jr. than Odelay (well, except for the brief detour into “Billie Jean”). Then he treated us to a version of “Loser,” which I’m honestly kind of surprised he still even plays. I don’t know, maybe he feels like he needs to, or maybe he thinks a festival audience would be bummed if he didn’t (judging by the fact that he let the crowd sing all of the choruses), but for some reason I always thought this would be to him what “Creep” is to Radiohead: a song that could have made him a one-hit wonder if not for the fact that he followed it up with one of the greatest alternative rock albums ever. But then he closed the night with an epically jammed-out version of “Where it’s At,” complete with an extended bridge in which he introduced the members of his band by playing covers with improvised lyrics about each member (so for example, “Miss You” became a tribute to his long-time guitarist Jason Falkner). It was the perfect way to wrap up a set of Beck the crowd-pleaser, and he certainly gave everyone in attendance not only their money’s worth, but a reminder of why he’s hands down one of the best songwriters of his generation.
Devil’s Haircut/Black Tambourine/The New Pollution/Think I’m in Love/Mixed Bizness/Gamma Ray/Go it Alone/Hell Yes/Qué Onda Guero/Soul of a Man/Lost Cause/Paper Tiger/Dreams/Girl/Sexx Laws/E-Po. Encore: Jackass/Sissyneck/Loser/Where it’s At.