Beck is one of the best living rock musicians by anyone's standards, so why did his show last Thursday sometimes feel like one long Dad joke?
My grandfather was a real catchphrase guy. He didn’t speak in aphorisms, just affable taglines that reminded you of the jovial man he was. “You can take me anywhere. Once,” was one of his favorites. (There was always a pause before "once." The pause was very important.)
On Thursday, one of the great rock musicians of the past quarter century came to play at the Saenger Theatre, supported by Quintron and Miss Pussycat, who put on a slightly toned down but still bizarrely fun version of their sometimes puppet-heavy act. After a short set break, Beck came on stage dressed in all black, cloaked in a black fringe jacket and crowned with a black fedora for emphasis. His band—featuring Roger Manning and Jason Falkner (both formerly of Jellyfish) on keys and guitar respectively, esteemed sessions drummer Joey Waronker on an almost Neal Peartian kit, and Pharrell Williams’ former touring bassist Wayne Moore—dove right in, starting the night off strong with a rough, no-frills rendition of “Devil’s Haircut.”
Over the course of Beck’s 90-minute set, the band played songs from at least five distinct periods of his prolific, successful, yet somehow still edgy career, and had the crowd on its feet the entire time. So why couldn’t I shake the image of my grandfather’s head superimposed on Beck’s boyish frame?
Part of it had to do with the venue. The Saenger is the swankiest of Canal Street’s “big three” (jammed up against the Orpheum and the Joy), but its opulence doesn't connote rock 'n' roll. The surroundings, pricey drinks at the bar, and an audience dominated by people who'd passed their 40th birthday contributed to the general Dad-ness of the show.
The Saenger is not nearly as Beck-friendly as a place like House of Blues, where he played in 2014, or a festival setting like Jazz Fest, where he was scheduled to compete with Stevie Wonder and Snoop Dogg for a headlining Saturday spot this year until the festivities were washed away by a thunderstorm of biblical proportions. He seemed eager to please on Thursday, reminding us that he had second-lined through the French Quarter the night of the Jazz Fest fiasco with Win Butler and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to make up for his missed set. Later, he sang “Happy Birthday” to Quintron. Through it all, he seemed a bit like someone (a dad, for instance) who had missed his kid’s little league game and felt really, really bad about it.
Beck catered to the crowd’s most Dad-core demographic, enlisting their help for clap/singalongs whenever he played a song he thought they would recognize. (They recognized everything.) Still, he can’t really be blamed for his newfound patriarchal aura. He may still look like a prepubescent David Spade, but he’s actually 46 years old with a 12-year-old son. Being fatherly is hopefully second nature to him by now.
Dad vibes aren’t always a bad thing. Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones both put out albums this past June, followed by short promotional tours this fall. But Beck isn’t a crooner like Paul or a pirate like Keith, and his career—however varied—has always benefited from a specific brand of adolescent ennui that neither The Beatles nor the Stones ever came close to matching. Granted, Beck is quite a bit younger than anyone I just mentioned, and looks much younger than he is even. Ageless as he may appear though, his youthful charm is starting to wear off, and his quirks are starting to feel played out. Sadly, the show suffered because of it, and many of the songs sounded pre-punctured and deflating fast.
There was “Loser,” Beck’s breakout hit and probably still his most popular song. In 1993, it was a game changer, but today—in a post-Eminem world chock full of angsty white rappers—it’s not that interesting to hear a middle-aged Beck rhyme “spray-paint the vegetables” with “beefcake pantyhose” over a repetitive slide guitar riff. It was obviously a crowd-pleasing moment, but situated third on the setlist, “Loser” felt like an obligatory gesture rather than a genuine artistic choice.
There was also the constant flow of faux-Spanish, a staple of Beck's Guero period especially. “Que Onda Guero” is a great song, but in 2016, with cultural appropriation being the new devil, it felt a bit cringy (I would never go so far as to call Beck ~tonedeaf~) to see it played live, en la carne. For the first time, I felt strangely relieved that he was wearing a fedora and not a sombrero.
The same goes for “Wow” (the newest single off his upcoming album and the namesake of his tour), which borrows heavily from the dirty south tradition, but ends up sounding more like Taylor Swift than UGK. It’s not a bad song, but it seems like Beck is reaching for an aesthetic that he can’t quite grasp. (Ironically, the Mexican Institute of Sound made a remix called “Guau” last month, and it’s about a million times worse than Beck's original.) Thursday was his first time playing the song live, so there were some understandable kinks that will probably be worked out as the tour goes on.
Beck’s new direction could be a good thing. He’s always been a shapeshifter, and it seems like he’s already restless with the sound that won him the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2014. Morning Phase, was a good project, but the Morning Phase of Thursday’s show was undoubtedly the most boring part of the set--acoustic and moody without the grit of his earliest albums.
Even with all its faults, the show had some great moments. “New Pollution,” a Beatles-inspired yet punky jam, sounded great, even considering the bad mix that clouded the vocals the entire night. “Girl” (always a personal favorite of mine) was as catchy as ever, Beck’s sinister lyrics lurking behind a playful chiptune intro and sunny slide guitar solo. “Modern Guilt” was as tense and slow-building as it is on the album, and “E-Pro” was like a shot of adrenaline, bringing anyone still lingering in the orchestra’s nether rows rushing into the aisles. Weird as the show was, Beck is still Beck and his hits still sounded like hits.
Fittingly, Beck had a bizarre twist ending in store. The band left the stage after “E-Pro” and then quickly returned for an unabashedly pre-fab encore, Beck still waiting backstage as power-pop hero Roger Manning Jr., previously unobtrusive, took center stage, messing around with some cool changes that morphed into a quick “Strawberry Fields” fakeout before Beck reemerged—fringe cape and fedora gone, born again in a white suit and a white 10-gallon hat—to begin the encore in earnest.
The song was “Where It’s At”—arguably Beck’s second biggest hit—but it started off badly, possibly a function of the mix or of the pre-recorded click track he opted to use at seemingly random points throughout the show. Regardless, he stopped the song halfway through and launched into a monologue. Lazing on an amp as if it were his favorite armchair and clutching the mic like a 12-year scotch, he broke the proverbial fourth wall and addressed us kids directly to tell us that “this is happening right now(!)” It was almost endearingly creepy, though not as painfully awkward as the dance moves he tried when the song finally started up again.
Before “Where It’s At” continued, though, he decided that the encore was the time to finally introduce his band. Strangely enough, it may have been the best part of the show. As he gleefully called out their names, the boys strutted their stuff, cruising through a medley that paid homage to the likes of dad rappers Sugarhill Gang and electronic progenitors Kraftwerk, but also to the eternally cool Prince and David Bowie, who could never in a thousand lifetimes be considered Dads. It was an interesting mix, to say the least.
Beck finally closed out the talent show with his own virtuosic harmonica performance (how Dad is that?) in an expedited version of “One Foot In The Grave.” The band then launched back into “Where It’s At,” milking it for all it was worth and more, but sounding as good as they had all night. After a somewhat dysfunctional evening, the band, the crowd, and Big Daddy Beck himself finally felt like one big family.