Perhaps more so than any other artist of his generation, Beck is a master of mutation, reinventing himself with each tour and album. Recent Beck tours have featured lavish, gimmicky stage shows, including life-size marionettes and kitchen table percussion. The Beck who arrived at the Orpheum on August 28th, however, was a back-to-basics incarnation of the folk-funk troubadour.
Dressed like an undertaker, in a black suit with a large black hat covering his shoulder-length blond locks, Beck took the stage with his band not long after 9 pm. Doors were at 8, so much of the audience showed up late. His stage setup seemed intended to underwhelm, as the show began with simple white lights and a black backdrop. The coloured lights and a large screen were unveiled later. In keeping with the economy of the performance, audience interaction was kept to a bare minimum; Beck seemed weary, and was rarely animated during the 90-minute set.
Despite the understated visual performance, plenty of excitement was provided by the unpredictable set list. Beck took full advantage of his rich discography, as he wasted no time in dropping jaws, opening the set with his 1994 breakout single “Loser.” A stomping, punked-out version of “Girl” followed, as well as selections from a variety of previous albums, and the digital single “Time Bomb.” During a jammed-out take on “Mixed Bizness,” from 1999’s Midnite Vultures, Beck encouraged his band to “break it down Vancouver-style,” leading the audience through a series of campy hip-hopisms, with plenty of arm waving and “clap ya hands.” Surprisingly, Beck held off on anything from his latest, Modern Guilt album, until nearly halfway through the set, at which point he played four of the new songs consecutively.
Beck seemed to come out of his shell as the show went on, most notably during a brief mid-show electronic set. The band put aside their instruments and stood up front with hand-held programming equipment, as Beck twiddled dials and rapped into a headset microphone Garth Brooks, eat your heart out during exuberant takes on “Hell Yes” and “Black Tambourine.” Soon after, Beck took up a miniature acoustic guitar for a series of mopey folk songs from Sea Change, as well as a cover of the Korgis’ “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime.”
Beck wrapped up the night with a crowd-pleasing encore of “Where It’s At” and “E-Pro.” Rather than bask in the glow from the adoring audience, he was typically unassuming, barely pausing to wave as he raced offstage. Still, the message behind his minimalist show was clear: when your back catalogue is this good, you can let the music speak for itself.