cultural capital

Beck Unhyped and Unplugged on LES


Beck in Los Angeles earlier this month.Photo: Getty Images

The funny thing about Beck is that as his career grows, he becomes less and less of a star. He started out as the slacker’s poster child with Loser, balanced populism with avant-garde sonics on Odelay, and now he turns out an interesting but semi-popular album every year. He was just one musician among six at his intimate acoustic set last night at the tiny Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts, the former synagogue on the Lower East Side, his long hair hanging over his face and a fedora shielding his eyes. The low-key and unhyped concert was billed as “Beck & Friends,” and the friends on the bill weren’t big-name pals but rather the guys he tours with: guitarist Matt Mahaffey, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen, drummer Matt Sherrod, keyboardist Brian Lebarton, and dancer Ryan Falkner. There weren’t even any celebs in the crowd.

Beck might have been semi-anonymous but — in contrast to his Madison Square Garden appearance earlier in the week, where he barely said a word — he was positively chatty. “We don’t have big plans for tonight,” he said after opening with “Black Tambourine,” “but we do have a bunch of songs on a list. And we have a Casio. And guitars. And we take requests.” Everyone yelled song titles. Beck laughed: “Oh, and we play bar mitzvahs.”

After “Scarecrow,” “No Complaints,” and “Lost Cause,” Meldal-Johnsen suggested “More than Words” by Extreme. Beck considered for a moment. “We’d need stools for that, right? And we’re in chairs. There’s protocol to be followed.” Instead, the band played an almost unrecognizable version of “Nothing That I Haven’t Seen Before,” followed by “We Dance Alone,” with Beck rapping over Casio beats. The closest he ever got to acting like a front man was when he cut off the band just as it was starting to jam. “Yeah, I think the song is over. It ended twenty seconds ago.”

The Casio came in handy again on what Beck called a “Super Mario Brothers–soundtrack” version of “Where It At.” “This is usually the part where we ask the whole audience to jump up and down,” he said two-thirds through. “But I don’t know if that’s appropriate in a synagogue.”

After a run through the current tour’s party trick — the band sits down at a table, seemingly to eat, then uses the glasses and bowls for percussion — they closed the show out with “Clap Hands,” which finally got the respectful crowd to its feet, followed by a three-song encore.

It was the kind of show you hold on to the ticket stub from, to prove that you got to see a bona fide indie god acting like an anonymous jazz guitarist. Still, Beck was apparently too unplugged for some people, who muttered on their way out about the lack of puppets. For those crowd-pleasing stage props, they should have gone to the Garden.

Jada Yuan

Beck on a Stick [NYM]

Beck Unhyped and Unplugged on LES