Passion, imagination boot Beck out of recycling bin


September 23, 2005


Beck had something to prove when he arrived at the Riviera Theatre for two sold-out shows on Tuesday and Wednesday.

One of the most successful survivors of the alternative rock boom of the '90s, as well as its most famous eccentric Scientologist, 35-year-old singer and songwriter Beck Hansen bordered on becoming passe with the release of his latest album, "Guerro," a self-conscious recycling of older sounds a la U2's last two discs, or the Rolling Stones' last two decades.

While the music was brilliant during Beck's 2002 tour with the Flaming Lips in support of "Sea Change," the somber effort that preceded "Guerro," the diminutive and perpetually boyish Los Angeles native suffered a serious public relations backlash when Lips leader Wayne Coyne proceeded to tell any interviewer who asked that Beck had been a disconnected, elitist, rock-star "jerk" throughout their joint trek.

Always a spotty performer live, Beck thoroughly redeemed himself on Wednesday with two hours of passionately delivered, imaginatively paced and intriguingly arranged tunes from throughout his career, making a case for the new material as well as reminding fans about the strengths of his now considerable catalog.

To be sure, there was some jerky rock-star behavior: The headliner kept fans waiting a ridiculous 50 minutes after the conclusion of the intentionally annoying opening set by his pals Whirlwind Heat, an antagonistic, minimalist post-punk trio from Grand Rapids, Mich. And there were more fancy tour buses parked outside the Riv than were brought by all the bands at Lollapalooza.

But all was forgiven once Beck's set started with a flurry of high-energy tunes, including "Black Tambourine," "Girl," "Devil's Haircut" and the alt-rock anthem "Loser." The grooves came fast and furious courtesy of a six-piece backing band, which included one individual, Ryan Faulkner, who served as multi-instrumentalist, dancer, hype man and Napoleon Dynamite clone. He did all the fancy but geeky moves Beck used to do himself; why bother to stretch and sweat when you can hire someone to do it for you?

After the opening, Beck proceeded to alternate between stripped-down, mostly acoustic mini-sets and groups of more full-throttle jams. Even some of his most ardent fans groan when Beck reaches for the acoustic guitar, but in the ebb and flow of this evening, songs such as "Lost Cause" and the harmonium-driven "Nobody's Fault But My Own" were welcome treats, as was his oblique thank you/snide retort (choose one) to the Flaming Lips: a solo acoustic cover of their song, "Do You Realize??"

While there already was plenty to watch as the musicians alternated among three dozen instruments, counting the many percussive playthings, Beck seemed to learn the benefits of extra eye candy while touring with the Lips. He performed in front of a giant video screen that flashed an ever-changing montage of abstract images, mixed live onstage by a "DJ film-scratcher," and he offered prop-laden skits such as a parade of giant boom boxes during "Where It's At" and a fake banjo duel with Faulkner on "Sexxx Laws."

Best of all was a trio of tunes that Beck performed on his acoustic as his five bandmates sat behind him "eating dinner." When the roadies set up a fully stocked dining room table, I thought Beck had crossed a line in the prop department from amusing kitsch to silly over-indulgence. But as he serenaded the musicians with "The Golden Age," they began "playing" the table and the glassware with hands, knives and forks, providing an unexpected but extraordinarily musical and fitting rhythmic accompaniment.

The set proper drew to a close back in high-octane mode, with "Mixed Bizness" and "Get Real Paid," both from the "Midnite Vultures" album. When Beck mixed a bit of Sly Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher" into the former -- a better choice than the snippets of R. Kelly songs he's been offering at other shows -- the sentiment was apt for what had been a transcendent night.