The first time I ever saw Beck in concert, before “Mellow Gold” made him a star, at a small, long-defunct club on a dodgy section of Pico Blvd., he wore a Stormtrooper helmet for the better part of his performance. He’s come a long way, baby, as they say. Little would anyone watching him in his avant-folkster early-‘90s L.A. gigs have imagined the utterly populist, people-pleasing entertainer who headlined a full Hollywood Bowl Friday. Maybe his show-biz rabble-rouser side is a bit of a mask, too, but it’s one he wears well.
Beck is just a couple of gigs away from more than a year’s worth of touring behind “Colors,” an album that’s coming up on its first anniversary. “Colors” is the sound of Beck Having Fun in a way that he probably hasn’t on record since the ‘90s, and the tenor of the 100-minute show was certainly set by the five songs played from that along with healthy dollops of the similarly party-friendly “Odelay” and “Midnite Vultures.” He gave a shout-out to “the most incredible positive energy constantly coming from audiences all over, and I really wanted to do a record that encapsulated that energy and put it to a record. I think this record [has] a little more [of] a positive feeling to it. Some of my other records are a little more… introspective.” (It’s more upbeat than “Sea Change”? Y’think?) “But I really was trying to channel what I was getting from you for all of these years.”
That’s another way of saying: I am feeling really audience-friendly right now. And it showed, in a performance that had him paying extended homage to Prince, for one thing… even if in his case a Prince tribute mostly entails the solo acoustic portion of the show. He let the rest of his big band go while he busted out the acoustic for a “slow jam,” “Debra,” the classic joke of which is that its central premise is Prince’s falsetto goes to Glendale. (The song was re-popularized last year by “Baby Driver,” from Edgar Wright, who directed a recent Beck video and was in attendance at the Bowl.) From that, he went into a crowd sing-along of “Raspberry Beret,” recalling the time he saw a Prince concert at the venue where the performer made a running leap onto a piano and landed in a come-hither pose. To cap the epic tribute, the band rejoined Beck for “Nicotine & Gravy,” a funk-rocker reverse-engineered to sound more like “Kiss” than “Kiss.”
The show wasn’t otherwise rife with covers until near the end, when Beck preceded “Where It’s At” with a snippet of “Strawberry Fields” and then did a long band introductions segment that turned into a medley of Chic’s “Good Times,” the Stones’ “Miss You,” New Order’s “Blue Monday” and Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” To say that all this went over like gangbusters is to not give enough credit to either gangs or busters, as it came at the end of a performance that had Beck dancing, shuffling, striking guitar-neck-in-the-air poses and doing nearly as many costume changes as Shania — OK, maybe just jacket changes. He even asked the 17,000 if they wanted to stay up all night (before, naturally, “Up All Night”) and threatened to break curfew. You might wonder if pre-1994 Beck would have scoffed at all this arena-rock ingratiation, but his catalog of smart-fun songs and the good will he’s built around it unironically bears it.
There were nods to other, less party-hardy phases of his career, although Depressing Beck — which accounts for about half of his oeuvre, nearly on an every-other-album basis — was rather purposely underrepresented, with only a group-acoustic version of “Lost Cause” to stand in for the many albums that are, unlike “Mellow Gold,” mellow.
Nostalgia for his NELA roots brought out some moments not found elsewhere on the tour, as when he spoke about his time in Silverlake (for whom he’ll forever be the poster boy, no matter where he moves) in conjunction with accepting a request for a song about an unfortunate apartment building there, “Truckdrivin’ Neighbors” (which he gave up on after a verse and a chorus). An audience shout-out to Silverlake’s Rockaway Records engendered Beck to reminisce about Aron’s and Rene’s All Ears on Melrose, and then walking down Vine Street for an in-store appearance by the band X at a Music Plus, not to get an autograph but just “to look in the window. They existed. They were real.”
The most L.A.-unique part of the show, though, was a guest appearance by L.A. music teacher and gospel-meister Fred Martin and his Levite Camp choir. They joined Beck for the rarely played “Fourteen Rivers Fourteen Floods” and a bona fide gospel tune on which they took the lead, “Like a Ship (Without a Sail).” They also rejoined him later to add some actual gravity to “One Foot in the Grave.” For all his celebratory spirit and physicality on stage, Beck rarely actually smiles, you’ll notice. Listening to the female gospel singers, he broke into a grin you could see from the benches.
The half of “Coors” he included in the set made for pretty good glue, though it remains a somewhat odd album in his catalog. It’s an undeniably fun record, even if the collaboration with hit producer Greg Kurstin felt as if it were trying to sand off some of Beck’s rough or idiosyncratic edges and place him in a more hermetically sealed sonic environment to come up with something more palate to the kids — a sort of MGMT-meets-Phoenix sound. But with lyrics like “Standing on the lawn doin’ jiu jitsu/Girl in a bikini with the Lamborghini shih tzzu,” it’s not as if Beck had stopped being Beck — that’s definitely the work of the kid in the Stormtrooper mask down on Pico — and the trap sound of that particular track, “Wow,” sounded more impressive played by Beck’s unassailable live band.
Other newish numbers came off even better: Beck encouraged pogoing in the standing-room pit for “I’m So Free” and earned it by being the leaping standees a great lost Weezer anthem. “Dear Life” gave guitarist Jason Falkner a great rock lead to replicate and keyboardist Roger Manning the chance to pay some “Lady Madonna” piano. (With those two on stage, this tour would be the closest thing to a Jellyfish reunion we’re going to get, if it didn’t so often sound like a duplicative Chic reunion.)
History would indicate that, now that he has all this mass-entertaining out of his system, Beck will return to something more ruminative as his next move. But watching this show, you couldn’t help but hope he stays in this bummer-tonic mode a little longer. El es un ganador, baby, and we could use all the slaying we can get from a band as good as the one he’s assembled.
Opening the show was birthday girl Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, aka yet another nom de plume for this occasion, St. Vicious. That’s the name she takes for herself in DJ mode, so we didn’t see much of her other than her bangs as she leaned over two turntables and no microphone — coming up with a mix that included everything from Gil Scot-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” to Fiona Apple’s “Fast as You Can.” (Clark didn’t stick around to blow out any candles when Beck had the crowd sing her “Happy Birthday” during his set, but she’s sticking around L.A.; she just announced a solo-piano St. Vincent pop-up show at the Belasco this Tuesday.)