Beck remains vital with the help of his “Black Tambourine”

By Matt Zakosek

On the way home on September 21, I ran into a friend of mine who graduated recently. When I told him I had been at the Riviera to see the sold-out Beck show, he asked, “Beck—is that the bald guy? Or is that Moby?”

I could see his point. Both artists, while once on the cutting edge, are now pretty mainstream, and critics despised Moby’s latest disc, Hotel. But Beck’s new Guero is supposed to be a sequel-of-sorts to his 1996 classic, Odelay—a disc I don’t own—so Beck surely has a few good years left in him.

That’s the impression he left on September 21, anyway. Beck opened with “Black Tambourine,” a creepy, moving ballad from Guero, before launching into the radio hit “Devil’s Haircut.” The energy in the Riviera ran high from that point on, with singles like “New Pollution” and “Where It’s At” buoying the set.

In an odd move, Beck performed with a spastic, bespectacled geek who gyrated through the majority of the dance songs. While the presence of this stage dancer (a role better suited for a Celine Dion spectacle in Vegas!) was clearly meant to be cheeky and ironic, it merely emphasized the fact that Beck kept his own movement to a minimum.

But Beck refused to take the easy way out with his songs, injecting haunting ballads like “Debra” and “The Golden Age” into his up-tempo, audience-pleasing fare. For the most part, the crowd was receptive to this sonic noodling, but a Beck purist (does such a person exist?) would have been dismayed at the amount of ad-libbing during “Debra,” during which Beck chose to lampoon such easy targets as U2 and R. Kelly.

Material from Guero was well represented in the set, with “Hell Yes,” “Girl,” and the celebratory “Qué Onda Guero” all making appearances. Unfortunately, these tended to be the weaker numbers, as Beck was unable to recreate the rapid-fire wordplay that makes them so memorable on disc. Still, he sure as hell tried, and the songs’ sheer newness is what makes them so exciting, anyway.

A low point was the audience sing-along of “Loser”—initiated by Beck himself—in which the show-offs proved that they knew even the throw-away lyrics at the end of each verse (“Gettin’ crazy with the Cheez-Whiz” and “Drive-by body-pierce,” among the several). At the end of the song, Beck declared, “Thank you all for your beautiful voices.” Yeah, right.

“E-Pro,” the opening track on Guero, served as the fauxser (that is, the faux closer). Most critics dismissed “E-Pro” as a lazy “Devil’s Haircut” retread—and they were right—but as with “Girl,” it’s so damn catchy one can’t help but hum along.

If you’re like me, you don’t know whether that song is about a “summer” or “Southern” girl, but the trippy visuals distracted the crowd from the garbled quality of the lyrics (never Beck’s strong suit). A backdrop of psychedelic swirls perfectly accompanied Beck’s space-alien swagger, and when Beck went solo on his guitar, a panoramic view treated us to his back-up band enjoying a meal around a large dining-room table. Why? Why not?

And why not have a giant turntable drop from the ceiling during “Where It’s At,” with its jubilant refrain of “I got two turntables and a microphone?” Why not poke fun at Franz Ferdinand during a song that’s supposed to be a heart-wrenching ballad? Why not address your audience as “beautiful people” as if you’re Marilyn Monroe (or at the very least, Marilyn Manson?) Some artists throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Beck throws in the kitchen sink, too, hot- and cold-water faucets both running full blast, and then dares you to tell him that he’s gone too far. There’s something exhausting about that, but it’s admirable, too.

But by the end of the night, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a show best viewed through the eyes of a hardcore Beck fan. I’ve never found him to be a particularly compelling artist, with his non sequitur lyrics, hip-hop posturing, and generally goofy demeanor, but every once in a while he releases a single that seems to speak to me. And his performance at the Riviera followed that same hit-or-miss pattern.

One sin of which I can no longer accuse Beck is that of hipster smarm. He seemed genuinely grateful to receive his audience that night, even the soccer moms, the pot-smoking 12-year-olds, and the frat boy in front of me who kept yelling, “Beck, you’re my dawg!” A group of (mostly awkward) fans from the first few rows even joined him onstage for the encore, and I saw him shaking hands and receiving hugs as he wandered backstage. I don’t know—maybe fatherhood or Scientology have mellowed the man who made Mellow Gold.

It’s been 11 years since Beck first branded himself a “Loser,” and for an artist who’s never stuck with a particular genre (or, perhaps, excelled in one), he’s shown a remarkable longevity. What he lacks in emotional resonance, he makes up for in range. I can’t say he dazzled me, exactly, that night at the Riviera, but I understood his appeal a lot more after I left. So even though my friend, the graduate, may lump Beck together with Moby (a.k.a. “the bald one”), I no longer will. But just to be on the safe side, he’d better not lose his hair.