You might have assumed Solid Sound was in effect judging by the number of folks who packed into MASS MoCA’s largest performance space, Joe’s Field, for Beck’s Tuesday night show. And with the annual Wilco fest on hiatus this summer, the one-two punch of Iron and Wine and Beck this past week more or less served as a festival surrogate for the family-friendly arts institution. Shuttle buses carted the lawn-chair-toting audience in from off-sight parking lots to hang among the food trucks and outdoor installations before nightfall heralded Mr. Hanson’s big-stage extravaganza.
Opener “Devil’s Haircut,” the uptempo, sample-heavy intro to his 1996 masterpiece Odelay, dispelled any fears that this was going to be a strum-and-weep affair, given that Beck is currently touring on the folky Morning Phase. “I don’t’ get out here that often,” he admitted partway through, substantiating a longer-than average set but also perhaps justifying the hit parade he opted to deliver.
Beck is a restless performer, and his energy often trumped execution as he jumped around 20 years’ worth of music, drawing heavily on Odelay and The Information with choice nuggets from Modern Guilt, Guero and Sea Change—even dipping for moment into the lo-fi blues of “One Foot in the Grave.” He was smart to follow “pastoral” acoustic interludes (“Blackbird Chain”) with wake-up dance hits (“Loser”), and he even found space to interpolate creative cover-song teases. “Think I’m in Love” included a groovy disco excursion into Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” while a late-set “Hell Yes” found Beck ad-libbing lyrics to Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.”
The consummate postmodern performer, Beck is one of the few who can segue from somber acoustic folk into ironic, hyperactive rap in the course of a single set with coherence and verve. And his band (more or less the Sea Change session band, he announced) are largely responsible for this dynamism. Working the stage, Beck could trade guitars for harmonicas and draw out lengthy monologues while his band did the heavy lifting—despite his referring to them at one point as mere holograms. Things could get a little muddy at times, whether on account of the outdoor PA or Beck’s manic delivery—and a strange, grainy backing track kept rearing its head at various moments (any suspicions of lip synching were fairly routinely dashed with the ocassional lyric flub)—but the performance energy handily trumped these few blemishes.
The conspicuous absence of material from 1999 dance record Midnight Vultures was remedied with an encore of “Sex Laws,” followed by the brilliant, elliptical slow-jam “Debra.” Drawing out the adlibbed verses with riffs about the song’s love interest teaching him the mixolydian scale, Beck began counting the items he had on hand to foreshadow and segue into the night’s inevitable “Where It’s At” closer (with “two turntables and a microphone”). A reference to the specs of a brand new Hyundai partway in served as poetic justice to an ommitted lyric in “Debra.” And with this the world was made right.