There is something special about getting to take in the live performance of an artist you’ve followed since childhood. The artists that help define you as you grow up hold a special place for most music fans. The road trip tapes your family sang along to all those long hot summers ago, classics from your parents’ day… Well, in ’94, when I first discovered Beck, I didn’t know how to interpret a song’s music like I can today. I had no idea how to infer musical influences, or understand complex metaphors – but I knew one thing: that I had to keep that Beck tape (Mellow Gold) hidden from my parents. The reason might sound strange, but my folks had very delicate sensitivities, and, well, it was a weird album! My parents were not the type to let that sort of thing influence their little boy, so I kept it secret and listened only at friends’ houses or in headphones. It only takes one listen to Beck to understand that he sounds a bit different, that his music is not tailored to the masses. No two of his albums sound the same. They are all unmistakably Beck, and they are all insane. (Listen to the lyrics if you don’t believe me.)
While most emerging artists strive to make something incredible for debut studio albums, Beck made fun. Maybe he knew that if he did his own thing for long enough people would hear things his way, but in ’94, with the release of Mellow Gold, there was no reason to expect that to take him so far. After Mellow Gold‘s single, “Loser”, made it big, it seemed like his big break. But if you bought the album expecting 12 songs just like “Loser”, you were in for a surprise – a surprise you either despised or fell deeply, deeply in love with.
His follow-up acoustic album, One Foot in the Grave, didn’t make much of a mainstream splash, but in ’96 came Odelay, arguably his biggest commercial success. Tapping into and innovating blues rock, it had several huge hits. Songs from both Odelay and Mellow Gold still get regular radio play – it seemed like Beck now had a sound he could build a career on. Only he didn’t. Like Sean Penn and Spicoli, Beck wasn’t about to be typecasted, and the rest of his career makes that perfectly obvious. If you removed the vocals from his songs and played them at random you could easily be forgiven for thinking it was different musicians. Everything from acoustic folk to Calypso to hip-hop, Beck has explored, written, and recorded. With no major labels on his albums to force his sound direction, whatever he wants was exactly what he did, and we loved him for it.
That’s why I went and saw Beck perform. In my mind he could have blown his set and played terribly, and I still would have gone. Luckily for us all, it was one hell of a barn burner. If you were to put together a mix-tape for someone who had never heard any of Beck’s music, it would sound a lot like the night’s set list. Opening with “Devil’s Haircut” got everyone amped immediately. They kept up the energy and showmanship through to “Loser”, then changed pace to the dreamier “Blue Moon” and “Lost Cause”. No one moves like Beck on his funky feet. They were high energy through the whole show and on through the encore, closing with a 20-minute improvised version of “Where It’s At”, during which time Beck introduced his band members and let them each take a turn to freestyle.
Beck’s performance was broad enough to show how incredibly talented he is in any genre he chooses but specific enough to make a great connection with the crowd. I’m fairly sure he made up a song about visiting Vancouver mostly on the spot. He had an awesome sense of humour, and the five-man band showed us a helluva good time! I’ve never seen a band throw more different genres together into a concert so perfectly. Blues rock, grunge rock, wispy electro-ballads, folk, harmonica solos, hip-hop. This is what you get from a musical genius who lives his career without guiding influence – a musician so talented that no two people like him for the same reason, but no matter when in Beck’s discography you became a fan, he gave us all something to love. His performance gave us all reason to rock out, or to sway gently with someone you care about, or to re-enforce your appreciation of his talent and drive to entertain.
Some artists you only need to see live once. You can cross them off your list and move on. It is not that way with Beck. I’ll see him again. With his huge range of musical genre experimentation, you have no idea what’s coming next – with either his albums or his performances. Beck is Beck is Beck: cool as hell with that certain “Je ne sais quoi.”