October 17, 2006

Beck plays puppeteer in concert of old favorites

It would be a safe bet to assume that the crowd who waited in the cold to see Beck last Saturday night didn’t think they would also be watching intricate puppets perform. Yes, the world can be full of beautiful surprises—like seeing Beck and his backup band turned into a grown-up version of Sesame Street.

Beck played the UIC Pavilion, an unpleasant and austere arena blocks away from the UIC campus and miles away from anything else of interest. He is touring to support his newest album, The Information, which came out at the beginning of this month. Despite Beck’s desire to promote the current record, his set relied heavily on his older, most popular songs. This was a good decision, as the songs that he did play from The Information were spacey in a Pink Floyd style—airy and disengaging in a large venue, but worthy of a closer listen in a more intimate context than Beck’s antic-filled live show.

Beck is a master of recycled beats and clever constructs. His albums showcase this talent, but his live show is even more engaging. The band was represented on the large screen backdrop by real-time images of puppets, costumed exactly as the band members were dressed—vintage blazers, glasses, quirky hats, and stylized T-shirts. In this creative staging, there were three bands to watch at any time: the real people, the small puppets in their likeness onstage behind them, and the images of the puppets blown up hundreds of times larger than life on the gigantic backdrop.

Beck’s sound depended on complexity, with a plethora of instruments, heavy in percussion. With a six-person band, many of them skilled on multiple instruments, the collective sound was effectively orchestrated to evoke the intricacies of Beck’s recorded music. Yet the inclusion of a man wearing black-framed glasses who only danced and played maracas added little to the music. Well, if nothing else, he did at least manage to entertain the audience—one fan shouted zestfully multiple times, “I wish I had that guy’s job!” Don’t we all?

The set focused on Beck’s pop-song masterpieces, with a heavy emphasis on the material from his second-most-recent album, Guero. The set started with his energetic slacker anthem “Loser,” but intensified as it went on, evolving into the sophistication of a rocked-out version of the song “Paper Tiger.” After a rendition of “Tropicalia,” the band (and the puppets) left the stage briefly. A table with water and food was brought on, and as Beck performed a few quiet acoustic numbers, the band came back on stage and sat down, using the elements on the table to produce a rollicking, tongue-in-cheek version of “Clap Hands.”

For the encore, Beck returned wearing a full-body bear suit for “Where It’s At,” briefly leaping into the audience to greet his adoring public. They closed with “E-pro,” another catchy song with a heavy, addictive guitar hook. As both the band and the puppets triumphantly paraded offstage, excitement pervaded the dull arena.

The opening act, Spank Rock, performed excellently, but the audience seemed unresponsive. Spank Rock are popular on the East Coast dance-rock scene (they caught on after being heavily supported by Diplo and Hollertronix), but don’t tour much in the Midwest. The band’s appearance was not widely advertised, and the audience was in for an unexpected treat. Spank Rock put on an explosive set, with excellent dancing and catchy beats, but the crowd seemed taken aback by the consciously clever rap (as opposed to Beck’s shtick of consciously mysterious rap). Yet, for those who had longed to see the band, the set was as tight and as exciting as Beck’s.