“These lights and this stage are giving me flashbacks to open-mic nights in, like, 1988. Just so you know what’s going on up here.”
Once upon a time—in, like, 1988—Beck Hansen actually played open-mic nights. Tiny stages. Sweaty spotlights. Intimate rooms.
But on Wednesday night, all of that changed. For 90 short minutes, a few dozen lucky Los Angelenos (including Michael Keaton and Courteney Cox) entered a musical time machine and traveled back to an era when you could stand in the same small space as Beck—shoulder to shoulder, packed in like sardines—and see him play a set. It was a spectacular (and in some ways revelatory) show.
The revelation? That even in 2014—the era of EDM and “selfie pop”—a small, live, flesh-and-blood band could still be (and have) so much fun.
The occasion was a live taping for KCRW's long-running Morning Becomes Eclectic radio program. The venue was Santa Monica’s Apogee Studio, the private recording complex of legendary producer-mixer Bob Clearmountain (Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, David Bowie). And the ostensible peg was Beck's most recent album, Morning Phase, and the start of his summer tour in support of the LP.
Beck’s official setlist was drawn exclusively from the mellow, melodic Morning Phase and its sonic predecessor, 2002’s Sea Change—which made perfect sense, given the timing and setting of the gig. He began with the panoramic “Golden Age,” then uncorked a bunch of new numbers: “Blackbird Chains,” “Say Goodbye,” “Don't Let It Go,” “Waking Light,” “Country Down.” Some of them had never been played live. A gorgeous, glistening rendition of “Lost Cause” came next, and the airy Morning Phase standout “Blue Moon” ended the sequence. With his eyes closed, his voice clear, his Martin acoustic in constant use, and a black fedora perched atop his blond bangs, Beck made a convincing case for his status as our Last Big Singer Songwriter —a kind of one-man, 21st-century Laurel Canyon revival.
But for me, the real show started when the encore began.
“We apologize in advance to the people in the first three rows,” said Beck’s bassist, Justin Meldal-Johnsen.
“Why?” asked Beck. “Because it’s going to be loud?”
“I think it’s because of all the spitting [we’re going to do],” said guitarist Smokey Hormel. Meldal-Johnsen cracked up.
“I see a mosh pit forming right here,” Beck said as he pointed at the people right in front of him. “A Santa Monica mosh pit... Some hardcore shit.”
And with that that they launched into a blistering set of Beck’s hybrid funk-psych-hard-rock classics, with a few cheeky covers thrown in for kicks. “Soldier Jane” segued into “Think I’m in Love,” which morphed into Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” which gave way to “Devil’s Haircut,” “Soul of a Man,” “Black Tambourine,” and “Sissyneck.” Beck—a tiny, almost fragile-looking elf of a guy—was shaking his narrow hips, his arms thrown out wide. Drummer Joey Waronker was firing off impossible fills every few seconds. At some point Meldal-Johnsen started playing a familiar bass line, and suddenly Beck was falsetto-ing his way through Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” encouraging his bandmates to chip in with their most Jacksonesque yelps, and trying (and failing) to flip his tan bomber jacket off his shoulders. “It doesn’t work so well with suede,” he deadpanned.
This wasn’t just a concert. It was a party. “We do weddings, bar mitzvahs, christenings, anniversaries,” Beck announced. “We even do funerals.”
Where do I sign up?
Over the past 15 years or so, Beck’s best-reviewed albums have tended to be the downbeat, introspective ones: Mutations, Sea Change, Morning Phase. Many of his recent side projects—I’m thinking of 2012's Song Reader in particular—have shared a similarly subdued vibe. But after seeing both sides of Beck’s musical persona in close quarters Wednesday night, I can’t help but wonder if we (and perhaps he) have been undervaluing the very thing that made him such an exciting artist in the first place: his genre-defying sense of absurd, spontaneous fun.
There's nothing like that Beck——the loose, goofy 1990s Beck of Mellow Gold, Odelay, and Midnite Vultures—on the charts, the radio, or the record-store racks anymore. (Even the Aughties Beck—The Information, parts of Guero, parts of Modern Guilt—seems like a relic at this point.) These days, most pop music is self-obsessed. Most rock music is self-serious. Most indie music is unentertaining. And most live music is bombastic, because that's the only way to make money in 2014. Maybe this makes me sound like a irredeemable Nineties nostalgist, but there was something refreshing—something eye-opening, even—about the alternative that Beck was offering up in his Apogee encore: a crack band with a sly, charismatic, chameleonic frontman playing smart but not-too-serious songs that you could dance to and think about at the same time. And enjoying themselves while they’re at it. In a small room.
Sadly, the “small room” part of that equation seems to have been a one-time thing. But the rest of it? Maybe not. During a mid-show interview with KCRW host Jason Bentley, Beck broke some news: He may be releasing another album before the end of 2014.
“I’ve been working on it on and off,” he said. “It’s different from [Morning Phase] in that I think the songs are a bit more representative of the live show. It’s a bit more loud and boisterous.”
If Beck & Co. manage to capture even a little bit of the intimacy and energy of the Apogee encore on wax—not to mention the volume and boisterousness—it’ll be a very welcome addition to the current musical landscape. They can call it Open-Mic Night.