On the Beat

July 24, 2014

Music Review: Beck marks the return of the funk soul brother

Yes, his latest album is downcast and sad, but Beck's live show is rocked-up and fun. Even though he's well into his 40s, Beck's music still seems steeped in a sprightly sense of adolescent make-believe, as he invents his own world where superdorky translates to supercool.

Earlier this year, Beck released a lovely album called "Morning Phase," which showed off the downcast-troubadour quadrant of his multifaceted identity. Based on that, you might have expected the singer's current tour to focus on his "Sad Beck" side. And you would be wrong.

Wednesday night at Red Hat Amphitheater, it took Beck about five seconds to shatter that expectation. Blasts of metallic fuzztone guitar and the star's mock-heroic poses on the show-opening "Devil's Haircut" established that there would be minimal amounts of moping.

Even though he's well into his 40s, Beck's music still seems steeped in a sprightly sense of adolescent make-believe, as he invents his own world where superdorky translates to supercool.

Wednesday's set ranged from egghead progressive-rock to Ramones-style thrash-pop, leavened with blue-eyed hip-hop, surreal gospel preaching and (yes) folksy melancholia, all of it woven together with impressive seamlessness. Prince is an obvious reference point, but I've always thought of him as Frank Zappa with pop sense and without the smug smarter-than-thou pretensions.

Wednesday's show began with "Ghost of a Sabre Tooth Tiger," starring Beatles scion Sean Lennon, a man who was seemingly put on this Earth to play inoffensive half-hour opening-act sets. His buzz saw psychedelic drones were pleasant enough; but at 33 minutes, alas, he overstayed his welcome by just about three minutes.

Then Beck came out and basically killed it for an hour and a half, blazing through a 22-song set with plenty of high points. One star of the show was Beck's underrated 2005 album "Guero," from whence came some of the set's best moments - "Girl," "E-Pro," "Hell Yes" and "Black Tambourine." Another was well-traveled drummer Joey Waronker, who put on a jaw-dropping percussive display that was both fluid and precise.

Beck did get around to some sad stuff, covering a half-dozen "Morning Phase" songs over the course of the show. But he paced the set cannily enough to keep things from getting draggy, perking up his first "Sad Beck" interlude by going right into "Loser." Twenty years after it hit the charts, "Loser" is still a great anti-anthem sing-along.

The pre-encore segment ended on as metallic a note as the beginning - "E-Pro," concluding with the guitarists in a heap playing skronky feedback while Beck roped off the stage with yellow crime-scene police tape. The subsequent encore did drag a bit with an overly self-indulgent version of "Where It's At," featuring extended band introductions. But he also managed to work in quotes from Leonard Nimoy as well as the Rolling Stones, to go with a Donna Summer cover earlier in the show, and he made it all seem of a piece.

No matter what he does, dude's got the golden touch.

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David Menconi
News & Observer music critic David Menconi's random (and we do mean random) musings about all things related to music and culture of the popular variety.

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