Beck may no longer hold the pop-culture spotlight — it’s been 10 years since the multiplatinum “Odelay” made him an alt-rock superstar — but at the Wiltern LG Theater Tuesday night (the first of a two-night run), the mercurial Los Angeles singer-songwriter proved he’s still got a few tricks up his sleeve. Although Tuesday’s perf shared much of its set list and featured much the same band as his show at the Gibson Amphitheater nearly a year ago, Beck managed to make it feel fresh and exciting.
The most obvious difference between the two concerts was the addition of a puppet show. While this sounds like an idea hatched during a drug-addled viewing of “Spinal Tap,” it actually works quite well; puppet versions of Beck and his band ape the live musicians from a small stage set up center stage, with the puppet performances beamed onto the video screen behind the band.
This allows the aud to fully appreciate the wonderfully skilled work of the puppeteers, who do an impressive job matching the puppet’s movement to the musicians (although they occasionally take some liberties, including having dancer-percussionist Ryan Falkner defy gravity). The “Thunderbirds Are Go” look, mixed with cheesy ’80s MTV special effects, cheerfully sends up the whole idea of concert video. The puppets get their own showcase in a short film unreeled before the encore, as they visit local attractions at every stop (in L.A., they include Dodger Stadium, Pink’s hot dog stand and Bruce Lee’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame) before heading to the venue, where onstage they perform (or would that be string-sync?) to a pre-recorded “Loser.”
The musical changes were subtler but just as impressive. The band’s sound is still groove-oriented, but bits of late ’60s and early ’70s sounds find their way into the mix. “Black Tambourine” gets a vocal bridge right out of Sly and the Family Stone and eventually morphed into a chorus of “I Want to Take You Higher,” while “Lost Cause” had the shambling scruffiness of a classic Laurel Canyon recording.
Beck has been in the studio with producer Nigel Godrich recording an album due in the fall; the four songs previewed are noisier and shaggier than his previous albums. “1,000 BPM” comes on as advertised, in a headlong rush, while “We Dance Alone” builds on the drum track from Serge Gainsbourg’s “Requiem pour un con” until it breaks down into a squalling guitars. While there’s no guarantee the songs will show up on the album, or even in the form heard Tuesday (“Debra,” which has thankfully been retired from the set, went through various permutations before arriving at its Prince-styled recording), they certainly whet the interest for more.
Early in his set, opening act Jamie Lidell sang that he’s a “question mark.” He certainly was to most of the early arrivals, including those that only know him from “Multiply” (Warp), which presents him as an electronically updated British blue-eyed soul singer. Live, he leans more toward his electronica side as he built noisy, eccentrically funky grooves live onstage. Tinkering with his computers, leaping around the stage in a gold-lame robe, adding his keening high vocals (including the album’s title track, as refreshing a slice of Hi Records-styled soul as has come down the pike in years), he gives off the same puckish, try-anything spirit that made Beck’s mid-’90s performances so exciting.