Graham Reid | | 5 min read
It was almost 20 years that I first saw Beck in concert, an extraordinary show at the glamorous Art Deco Wiltern Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.
My recollection was he hadn't toured in a little while and it was just by chance I happened to be in LA – maybe to interview some film stars but also to have a look at Richard Meiers's Getty Centre.
Beck was touring on the back of his Mutations album, a wonderfully diverse collection of songs which followed his breakthrough Odelay which had sprung a few hits like Devil's Haircut.
Mutations – which remains my favourite go-to Beck album for just sheer casual pleasure – covered so much musical ground – Latin, folk, cracked ballads, lo-fi blues-pop and much more – it was hard to imagine how he could perform it, and nod to early songs like Loser.
As it happened, on the night . . .
But first a word about the Wiltern which is a glamorous old venue which opened in the Thirties. It was on the edge of Koreatown but it took me two bus trips to get there. And if you had enough for three trips in LA you'd probably buy a car to avoid your broke-down, menacing and worldweary fellow passengers on cheap public transport.
I was glad to get off and hit a small Korean BBQ place before the show, which was a show in itself: massive and hooded-eye black patrons who looked anxious all the time, some swaggering young K-Town gangsta types, ordinary families trying to mind their own business, some drifters looking for hand outs . . . and me just hoping to finally make it a couple of blocks back to the Wiltern where a crowd of celebs, very hip folk and a real cross-section of the LA demographic were crowding into the gorgeous lobby.
The Beck show had a palpable sense of occasion and, seated about one third the way back, and behind couples in their 60s who seemed way older than his target audience, there was a vibe of expectation.
I sensed that everyone knew they were going to be in the presence of a true artist whose music to that point had rarely rested in one place and whose Mutations was absolute confirmation of his prodigious gifts.
Needless to say it was one of the most extraordinary shows I have seen, even just in terms of presentation: He opened with Cold Brains (the first song on Mutations) and about 100 minutes later closed with Devil's Haircut. There had been no Loser and the set favoured Mutations (he played nearly every song off it) but it was how he did it which kept the audience aghast and appreciative.
It seemed to me that after every song the lights would dim and when they rose again just seconds later he had new musicians (a sitar player!), a new band or was there solo.
It was a concert of one singular moment/songs one after another. The capacity audience – all seated – cheered after every song, Beck was gracious in thanking his players and it occurred to me that among the row in front of me might have been family members.
It was a concert I will never forget – although finding a taxi afterwards was equally memorable as it proved difficult and there were folks out there on the street at midnight whom I thought I should avoid.
Beck has been one of the most interesting and rewarding artists of the past 25 years, one who was tagged early on (on the back of that slacker anthem Loser) as a Bob Dylan for the hip-hop generation or some other such Bob-accolade.
It made no sense musically or in any “spokesman for a generation” cliché but in one regard it was right although they couldn't have known that at the time: like Bob, Beck was going to keep moving through styles. He effortlessly brought hip-hop beats into rock music with the Mellow Gold and Odelay albums, and Mutations of just two years after the exceptional Odelay included touches of blues, Latin sounds, a bit of country music, strings and synths and more.
Mutations didn't unleash hits or even sell especially well although critics said good things about it.
But believe me, a packed Wiltern – I think he played two nights – got it.
Songs like the mysterious and tired-sounding but vaguely optimistic We Live Again have a resonance beyond their time.
In the decades since, Beck has constantly reconfirmed his status as someone who consistently shifts his ground or does something interesting, like releasing the sheet music for an unrecorded album Song Reader in 2012, launching his Record Club in which he and various artists record their version of influential albums (Velvet Underground and Nico, Songs of Leonard Cohen, Skip Spence's Oar, INXS's Kick and most recently and rather unusually New Age guy Yanni's Live at the Acropolis with Tortoise and Thurston Moore among others) and being a remarkably prolific and generous collaborator and remixer.
He won a Grammy for his album Morning Phase – more than 20 years after his first appearance on anyone's radar – and has continued to touch on numerous genres and influences. He has had jazz greats like bassist Stanley Clarke, left-field guitarist Smokey Harmel, Jack White, samples (Dr John's Walk on Gilded Splinters on Loser, dozens onb his Guero album), strings, a choir and rock and hip-hop artists on his material.
He has sometimes delivered albums which have been highly personal (the wonderful Sea Change of 2002) and Morning Phase four years ago was acclaimed as a kind of sequel or companion piece to Sea Change.
And we had his 2008 album Modern Guilt as one of Best of Elsewhere albums that year.
His most recent album Colors of last year is dense with musical ideas -- lots of Eighties pop references alongside funk and hip-hop -- but is also beautifully crafted with an ear for delicacy and seductive pop textures and references. It is an album which sounds utterly at ease with its own sense of quiet self-worth.
He's one whose musical direction you'd never predict.
As Josh Modell of AVClub opened his review: “The defining question regarding any new Beck album is which Beck he’ll be. Will it be the sad, contemplative Beck of mopey masterpieces like Sea Change and the Grammy-winning Morning Phase? Or will the party-starter behind Odelay poke his head out, armed with nonsensical phrases and looped beats?”
And NME's Thomas Smith concluded its review with: “As a collection of songs, however, Colors is by far Beck’s most upbeat and enjoyable record from front to back since the ’90s. . . . Where the 47-year-old goes from here is a mystery once again – but ‘Colors’ proves that the element of surprise works to his advantage.”
Where he goes – or where he was, like at the Wiltern on that wonderful night – is of less importance than where he is.
He is at the Auckland City Limits festival on March 3.
And guess where I will be?