Concert Review: Beck at Hammerstein Ballroom: June 30, 2014
Oh Beck. You never stop amazing me. The last time you were in New York City (for a Celebrate Brooklyn show at Prospect Park Bandshell last summer) you delighted the crowd with surprise covers like Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” and Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love”. The “last time [you] performed in New York City proper”, as you referred to Manhattan on Monday night, was way back in 2008 at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, where you had marionettes take center stage. Now, for the first of two nights of shows in New York City, this one at Hammerstein Ballroom, then last night’s at Central Park Summerstage, you showed that you could put on a traditional rock show and still make it your own in a way that only Beck could.
With his latest album Morning Phase being a somber one, it’s impossible for an audience to know what to expect when headed out to a Back show. Would we get sad, introspective Beck, playing mostly acoustic numbers? Would we get funny, funky Beck, circa mid-late ’90s? Would we get high-energy, high-speed Beck, circa mid-late 2000s? The answer came from Beck really early in the night, when he declared after the first song (“The Golden Age”), “We’re gonna start it out slow. Then we’re gonna build it up. And we’re possibly gonna get a little rowdy.” We were getting it all, something for every Beck fan, and he absolutely delivered.
First came slow. After The Golden Age came eight more songs where the most upbeat was the last of the bunch, the pretty downbeat “Blue Moon“. Every one these nine songs were either from Morning Phase or the album to which it is a companion, 2002’s Sea Change. There was very little in the way of visual accompaniment for this portion of the show and very little dancing as well. But it was beautiful, especially when Beck slowed things down to an almost impossible degree on “Waves”. Hearing him croon the word “isolation” with a lone spotlight on him center stage brought up (perhaps not unintentionally) thoughts of Ian Curtis; the performance was simply breathtaking.
After Blue Moon there was a brief pause, denoting that Act II was about to begin. It also gave the audience a chance to give an extra-long applause for Blue Moon, which was an extraordinary, the perfect cap to part 1 of the show. Here’s where Beck lied – he didn’t “build it up.” He exploded. The first song of part 2 was a hellacious rendition of “Devil’s Haircut”. Already a loud and aggressive song, this was what I would call a Nine Inch Nails version. A rapidly flashing red and white digital display – the first real visuals of the night – added to the industrial nature of the song. Beck had gone from 0 to 60 in one song. Fasten your safety belts and keep your hands inside the car at all times.
“Black Tambourine” and “Soul of a Man” were good follow-ups, popular but not Beck’s biggest hits, yet the right style to keep the momentum from Devil’s Haircut going. The show was then allowed to breathe a little bit as Beck went into his pop mode (Beck’s version of pop still wildly entertaining). A trio of fan favorites were played, starting with “The New Pollution”, then “Loser” followed by “Hell Yes”. Each song was modified from it’s album version to be louder, more guitar heavy, more bass heavy, just more everything. The New Pollution especially was, like Devil’s Haircut, almost an entirely different song in its loudness. The crowd and the band were in full party mode.
It seemed to me that this was a bit of a turning point. Whereas part 1 was beautiful and exquisite, and part 2 to this point had been upbeat and loud by design, Beck and his band (who more than once he said was his favorite band to work with) entered phase 3 in a great mood, ready to go off script. Everyone was having fun up there; you could tell he knew the show was going really well. “Get Real Paid”, which came next, is an odd song, and with the extra-robotic nature of it brought to mind Devo. At the beginning of “Modern Guilt”, Beck laughingly admitted in the middle of the first verse that he forgot the lyrics! “Think I’m in Love” featured a sampling of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”. There were jokes about the marijuana smell coming from the crowd and about Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire. And there was dancing. Beck did his thing, the Beck version of dancing like Michael Jackson, while the rest of the band jumped around the stage with some abandon. By the time of main set closer “E-Pro”, where of course every single person in the audience sang along, the concert had become a celebration. The band had jumped and smashed into each other giddily throughout the song, a few mock falling to the ground when it ended. As the lights dimmed further, Beck unspooled a roll of yellow police tape across the length of the stage which read “Crime Scene Do Not Cross.” We’d come a long way from The Golden Age.
After the break, Beck came back on stage, cut the yellow tape and went into the Midnite Vultures romp “Sexx Laws”. Finally, for the grand finale, he and the band played a very extended version of “Where It’s At” with Sean Lennon (John and Yoko’s son, from opening band The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger) joining them onstage with a “special tambourine.” In the middle of the song Beck began walking around the stage, bantering to the crowd, and then individually introducing the band members (who each got to do a short solo). Upon introducing himself, Beck jokingly said, “I don’t know what to do. I can sing up to 17 octaves.” He jokingly fell short, then put on an impressive vocal display, though again in mock self-deprecation he said “I guess 16 octaves.” Finally, after a short interlude of “One Foot in the Grave”, Beck and co. finished up Where It’s At, took some well-deserved bows and left the stage to loud applause. It was a fantastic show, a great night, and everything you could want or expect from this musical genius.
Y0u can read other reviews from Entertainment Weekly and theNew York Times Music Review. And here are photos by Gretchen Robinette courtesy of Brooklyn Vegan (though unfortunately these high-quality shots all appear to be from part 1 of the show, before the visual effects).
The Golden Age
Heart Is A Drum
[15 second break to mark end of the first half]
Soul of a Man
The New Pollution
Get Real Paid
Think I’m In Love
Where It’s At (With band introductions and “One Foot In the Grave” interlude)