Friday, October 10, 2008

Beck at United Palace, 10/09/08

Beck had been on of the few major artists left on my “must-see” list that I hadn’t seen live. So when the opportunity finally came, I jumped at the tickets. Yet for some reason I found myself lackluster about the event as it came near.

I attribute it to a mixture of being preoccupied with so many other things as well as my lukewarm opinion of his latest release, Modern Guilt. I’d followed every one of his albums with anticipation since Odelay and found Beck to be a reliable source of great music.

Until Modern Guilt. The whole album lacked the spirited inventiveness and heartfelt enthusiasm normally found in his work. This collection of songs seemed like he was going through the motions. Outside of Soul of a Man, which proved that Beck can still effortlessly pull together a blues song, the album sounded generic and bland. And at just around 30 minutes, it felt as though he was just as bored with the album.

Even his summer single release, Time Bomb, showed signs that the guy might be tired. At first listen, it sounds like a fun, light-hearted romp. But when dissected, I find that it’s composed of some of the least imaginative efforts I’ve heard from him. The lyrics are mainly comprised of bits like “we got a time bomb” and “tick tick tick” and “we got a warning light”. Have Beck’s lyrics ever been this straightforward and dull?

His malaise seemed to also affect last night’s performance. The whole night seemed like an exercise of running on auto-pilot.

I’ll briefly mention that the opening act, MGMT were very disappointing. While I consider their album, Oracular Spectacular to be quite a good record, I had heard several accounts that their live show was a letdown. Those criticisms rang true with me. This was just not an act that translated well live.

Once MGMT wrapped up, Beck’s set actually started somewhat early, around 9:20. It was a surprising change of pace from the usually long lag times between sets. Yet, that promptness seemed more due to Beck wanting to get it over with rather than of any enthusiasm to perform.

I knew the concert wouldn’t live up to the previous tour’s much discussed marionette act, but figured it was Beck so it would be a fun show. Sigh.

The band raced through every song with straightforward renditions. One song would scarcely be finished before the drummer would tick off the beat for the next one. Usually during a show, you’ll hear audience members yell out requests for songs, but in this concert there wasn’t even enough of a gap between songs for anyone to get a word in.

Years ago, my first revelation to Beck was his live performance of New Pollution at the 1997 MTV Awards. I had only seen the Loser era images of him and was surprised to see a clean-cut, gray suit wearing guy who was dancing his ass off. I immediately realized that this guy was a true performer and not a flash-in-the-pan gimmick as many had written him off as. He was vibrant, entertaining and magnetic.

That was the guy I expected to see. Yet throughout the night, Beck was disappointingly stoic and stationary. Even when the band shed their instruments to stand in front of the crowd to play on mini synthesizers, Beck sang with his hands in his pockets or with his arms crossed. It all signified that he wanted this all to be over as soon as possible. And I had started to feel the same way.

Finally, 45 minutes into the show he acknowledged the audience and played a duo of slow songs from the glorious Sea Change, which was the best part of the night. I wished that I was able to catch him do an entire set of songs from that album in a more intimate setting. I think he and I would’ve preferred that scenario.

Predictably, it wasn’t a long show. Almost exactly an hour plus the obligatory encore. I give the audience credit for being excited throughout the whole night. But I for one expect more from Beck.

I don’t blame the guy if he’s feeling a bit burned out. He’s been able to churn out great album after great album on a consistent basis for years. But Beck, if you need a break to recharge, please take it!

I’m not ready to write him off yet (unlike Weezer) because his prior records, The Information and Guero were each brilliant and showed a steady upward progression for Beck. Maybe Modern Guilt is a slight misstep and anomaly. Here’s hoping. If so, I’d be willing to see him again in concert.

Addendum: I wasn’t able to find the New Pollution performance online so this other one will have to do as a demonstration of Beck’s past awesomeness...

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