I don't always buy the t-shirt. There has to be a synergy between the quality of the concert, the design of the shirt, and the price. As my daughter and I made our way into the Rumsey Playfield Summerstage area for Beck's concert on July 1st, I took note of the shirts at the merch booth. Cool designs, decent prices, but even though I just declared Morning Phase the best album of 2014 (so far), I still didn't buy right away. For some reason, I've never seen Beck live before, and the one bootleg I heard (from the Newport Folk Festival in 2013) was a little uneven. So, he was going to have to seal the shirt deal from the stage.
First up was The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger, who took the stage right around 7:00 PM, while the sun was still hot. They came out strong with Too Deep, which kicks off their terrific album Midnight Sun, before burning their way through seven other songs from the album with barely a pause. It was an impressive display; Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl were in fine form and have assembled an extremely able band to bring these songs to life. I would especially like to know who the other guitarist was - his work was stellar throughout, often coaxing nasty or strafing sounds out of a big Gretsch. Some in the audience weren't so impressed, however, and preferred to talk - their loss.
The GOASTT ended with a cover of Syd Barrett's Long Gone, which was fleshed out brilliantly from the spare original and fit their sound, and Sean's voice, perfectly. With The Dakota only blocks away, I couldn't help thinking how proud Sean's father would be of him - after all, he wasn't born playing guitar like that, or writing songs like Great Expectations. While I've loved his work from the beginning, he continues to evolve and has shown impressive growth in the last few years since we saw The GOASTT at the South Street Seaport in 2010. The main difference is that now the songs match the strength of the band. Make up your own mind when they play a free concert in McCarren Park later this summer.
Before we knew it, The GOASTT's gear had been removed, the audience had tightened up, and Beck came out with six other musicians. They had barely spread out across the stage when they launched into Devil's Haircut from the classic Odelay album. It sounded fantastic and I suddenly realized that I had woefully underprepared my daughter. Morning Phase was the first album of his I've loved in a while and is the one we've played the most recently - but it's really only one side of Beck, as she was learning quickly. "I think you're going to want a lot more Beck on your iPod after this," I whispered to her. She nodded enthusiastically.
The crowd had exploded from the first fuzz-guitar riff and were now boogieing happily as the sun set, but no more so than Beck's band who just seemed amped. They lept nine years into the future, playing a glammed up take on Black Tambourine from Guero, which easily bested the studio version and kept the energy up. Soul Of A Man was warmly received but dissipated quickly when Beck launched into an unbelievable a cappella version of One Foot In The Grave, accompanying himself on the harmonica. He's a slight man, narrow in the shoulders, but he seemed larger than life as he roamed the stage in his dapper attire, blowing and singing for his life. The crowd ate it up and I flashed back to seeing Bowie at the Garden in 1983; I'm not sure I've seen another performer play the crowd with such skill, all the while making it look easy. At one point he mentioned that this was the first time he had played Central Park...legally. If he ever has to return to busking you can be sure his guitar case would runneth over.
He returned to the mic stand, put on his guitar, and conjured up The New Pollution, another blast from Odelay. It sounded beefier than the album version, thanks to the three guitars and two well-equipped keyboard players (including former Jellyfish Roger Manning) and clattered to a halt to ecstatic applause. Beck then related how he wasn't sure how to order the show, whether to start slow and build up or vice versa. He decided to sequence the set like a W: up, down, up - "you know what a W looks like!" On the left side of the stage, Smokey Hormel, for it was he, strapped on a mandolin while Beck and multi-talented Jason Falkner (who looks uncannily like he could be Beck's brother) picked up acoustics. The beautifully conceived background changed to a bucolic scene and they began Blue Moon from Morning Phase. This was what I had been visualizing in the months since I bought the tickets: standing in the night air listening to a perfect rendition of one of Beck's brilliant new songs. The reality was even better, as they brought a little more energy and drama to the song and, despite a few instances of feedback, the sound was rich and beautiful.
Lost Cause from 2002's Sea Change continued the acoustic set, which was completed by a gorgeous take on Country Down from Morning Phase. In eight songs he had covered six albums spanning nearly two decades of work and I found myself gaining a whole new appreciation for his achievements and talents. It also dawned on me that he was putting his whole career on shuffle play. Bowie crossed my mind again as the band struck up the title track to Modern Guilt. While the assumption of characters and personae is in no way as pronounced with Beck, like Bowie he has created a space for himself where he can pretty much do anything he wants. Also like Bowie, he's a great dancer and a bit of a cipher. Even though there are certain things we know about him - a bad breakup precipitated the introspection of Sea Change, he's a Scientologist, he's currently happily married to Marisa Ribisi - we connect with him on stage mainly due to sheer skill as opposed to self-revelation.
He's no robot, though - he forgot a few of the words to Modern Guilt, blaming it on the weed smoke wafting up to the stage; maybe it's because it's not a very memorable song. Think I'm In Love from The Information (2006) always sounded a little like an Odelay outtake but was engaging and propulsive here, driven by Justin Stanley's mesmeric bass, working that Taxman groove nicely, before the virtuosic band morphed it into Donna Summer's I Feel Love - jaw-dropping and delightful. Then came the moment it seemed many were waiting for: the bluesy slide that opens Loser. The crowd roared and it occurred to me the sheer cussedness Beck must have had to avoid becoming a one-hit wonder. He delivered it without apparent reservations, feeding back on the energy of the audience and rapping far more nimbly than he did 20 years ago. We all sang along with our own versions of "soy un perdedor" and the Rumsey Playfield became a total party - maybe the best party in town. The urban strut of Qué Onda Guero kept it going, pushing the sweaty mass towards ecstasy.
Beck's shuffle button then ended the party brilliantly, with a moody, fractured take on Paper Tiger, which led into a set of three songs from Morning Phase. Heart Is A Drum was pure bliss and the vocal tour de force of Wave was flawless, seeming to draw on a deep well of emotion, mesmerizing the listeners. Waking Light was even more epic than on the album, and as the finale crashed and burned, I thought: "This is it - the perfect end to the show, an apotheosis, as it is on the album."
Of course I was wrong. Three more songs followed, ending with a duo from Guero, the playful Girl and the slamming E-Pro, cunningly giving us all a chorus of "na-na na-na-na-na" to sing along with as we danced him off the stage. And of course there was an encore, including hilarious versions of Sexx Laws and Debra from Midnite Vultures, his r&b flavored album from 1999. He gave us the fully monty of James Brown spins and moves, even dropping to the stage, only to have Sean Lennon come out and throw a cape over him. Fun. The fun continued with the real final song of the night, Where It's At, another stomper from Odelay. As the band slid into a vamp on The Rolling Stones's Miss You, Beck introduced all the players and gave each one a little solo spot, including Lennon, who delivered a nice little tambourine jam. Eventually, they returned to Where It's At before cutting it off and linking arms to bow and soak in the applause and well-earned ovations.
Despite some ups and downs in his career, Beck is a master performer with a deep catalog to draw from - why he ignored the chameleonic Mutations (1998) in the set list, I'll never know - who is at the top of his game and currently on the road with the best band and tour of the summer. Catch him. Did I buy the t-shirt? Hell Yes.