A deep autumnal chill could already be felt in Beck’s sold-out Saturday perf at the Hollywood Bowl. Once he presented himself as an ironic trickster, gleefully rummaging though the sounds and styles of the past 50 years; at the Bowl he was a serious, sometimes dour, chronicler of unsettled times.
It’s a mood that can be traced to “Modern Guilt” (DGC), the Los Angeles singer-songwriter’s collaboration with producer Danger Mouse — an unadorned collection of tunes filled with dislocation, frustration and fear. While the 24-song set contained only five selections from the album, its sound and generally downcast outlook could be felt throughout the 90-minute concert.
There were no marionettes or bits of whimsy, such as having the band sit at a dinner table, as seen on the last few tours. In their place was a plain stage with Beck and his four-piece band surrounded by giant spotlights; a video screen was sparingly used, and early on, only projected high-contrast black-and-white images of bare trees and empty spaces. And swathed in dark flannels, with his shoulder-length blond hair topped by a soft, floppy hat, Beck was a subdued presence.
The band was as no-nonsense as the staging. At its center was Scott McPherson’s drums, which pumped away at the beat, adding rolls around his kit for emphasis. A keyboard played occasional ornamentation, while Beck and guitarist Jessica Dobson ground out terse, distorted riffs.
The thin and dirty sound crawled under one’s skin; it was perfect for the panicky, clipped “Timebomb” and “Nausea.” Older songs were recast: Centered on Beck’s raspy guitar, “Loser” became a despairing march to nowhere; the millennial party spirit of “Mixed Bizness” and “Nicotine and Gravy” (the latter given a truncated perf) has been banished, which turned the songs into surreal bad trips. Even the communal spirit was gone — the coda of “I Want to Take You Higher” added to “Bizness” was a tease, abruptly cut off after only a few bars. And a cover of Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” replaced the original’s rollicking humor with bitterness. The only reminder of Beck’s playfulness occurred mid-set, when band members came out from behind their instruments and performed “Hell Yes” and “Black Tambourine” on hand-held drum machines and samplers.
It also gave the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra strings, arranged and conducted by Beck’s father, David Campbell (marking the first time they’ve appeared on the same stage), time to take the stage. While the strings warmed up the sound, adding weight and tonal color, the songs turned even chillier. With three selections from the reflective breakup album “Sea Change,” the show became a meditation on loss and mourning. Campbell draped the songs in thick chords. He didn’t employ much counterpoint among the strings, and the section usually moved as one, producing a string sound ironically reminiscent of that found on the Mellotron, an early analog synthesizer. Neither Spoon nor MGMT made much of an impression in their opening sets. MGMT, a duo expanded to a quintet onstage, taps into ’80s electropop, but like so many of the bands from which they draw, have yet to figure out an effective way to present themselves onstage. Oddly, they were most animated on “Kids” (from their Sony debut, “Oracular Spectacular”), which they performed as a duo with backing tracks. Spoon remains a frustrating concert experience. A fine band with good songs, they have yet to figure out a way to engage an audience. It’s a skill Beck has mastered, which allows him to put across a show that’s decidedly no crowd-pleaser.