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No depression: Beck at SPAC. Photo by Martin Benjamin.

Captured by Robots
By Kirsten Ferguson

Beck, Dashboard Confessional, the Black Keys
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, June 8

As we stared at a bare white backdrop waiting for Beck to come onstage at SPAC Sunday night, I overheard a concertgoer telling his friend that he hoped the show wouldn’t be too “mellow.” Funny, I felt the same way. This past year, Beck has been touring in support of his most recent album, Sea Change, a collection of unrelentingly bleak and depressing breakup songs. Plenty of people love the album, but it takes a serious hankering for melancholy to sit through more than a few tracks.

For anyone anticipating a somber night, Beck kicked off his show at SPAC by defying expectations. Dressed in a snug black sharkskin suit, his shaggy blond hair a golden halo in the lights, Beck entered to the reverberating thud of a drum machine. The singer paced the stage, robotically waving a controller box that blurped out space-age synth effects. Beck then picked up a black-and-white electric guitar, and his backing band launched into “Loser” with rock & roll bluster.

Whether you think he’s a master of stylistic hat tricks, or merely a cultural dilettante, Beck deserves credit at least for always presenting a vision. He’s done everything from sex-crazed disco funk to boozy country-rock psychedelia, but at SPAC his new direction was immediately clear: From the jerky, robotic moves of the black-clad band to the futuristic keyboard effects and the monochromatic green and magenta stage lights, Beck’s current stylistic skin is pure Devo, with maybe the German expressionist space-pop of Kraftwerk thrown in. Hey, it worked for me. (The vastly underappreciated Devo deserve a revival anyway.)

After parting ways with his longtime band last year, Beck toured most recently with the Flaming Lips behind him. Beck unveiled his latest band just last month, but at SPAC they were already a tight unit (most notably featuring bassist Steven McDonald from Redd Kross), who added rock & roll vigor to a set that drew heavily from the more dance oriented Odelay and Midnite Vultures. Beck showed no evidence of the injury that forced the cancellation of his performance in New York City only the day before, when he was accidentally slammed in the ribs by a stagehand at the Field Day Festival. The boy could still dance: During the party hit “The New Pollution,” the pixieish singer set aside the guitar and executed a sideways slide across the stage to rival Michael Jackson’s moonwalk.

At least a token showcase of songs from Sea Change was inevitable, and the singer took the stage alone for an acoustic interlude that included that album’s gloomy “Guess I’m Doing Fine,” a cover of the Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize?” and “Nobody’s Fault but My Own,” a country-flavored lament from Mutations. The show picked up again when Beck launched into the party rap of “Where It’s At,” which he dedicated, appropriately enough, to all “the broken robots.” The band then returned for a final encore wearing all-white jumpsuits (Beck’s glowed in the dark). As their jerky movements around the stage during “Devil’s Haircut” grew increasingly spastic, the band ended the show looking like short-circuited robots that had gone out of control.

Dashboard Confessional frontman Christopher Carraba could learn a lesson or two from Beck in the “Lighten up, dude” department. Judging by the screams that greeted each of Carraba’s breathy acoustic numbers, the guy is considered cute and sensitive and all. But earnestness can’t compensate for lack of hooks, especially when each note of every power ballad stretches on far too long. The Black Keys, a gritty blues-rock two-piece from Akron, Ohio, who opened the show, were far more interesting. The inside of the amphitheater was barely half-full when they took the stage (inexplicably, no lawn tickets were available for this show), but the shaggy-haired duo with a rather minimalist setup pounded out a fair bit of racket, equal parts Southern-fried rock and traditionalist primal blues.

My way: Ray Charles at the Palace.Photo by Joe Putrock.

What I Said

Ray Charles
Palace Theatre, June 6

I used to live with a guy who did nothing but take acid, drink diet Pepsi and watch John Landis movies over and over until the sun came up. One such flick was The Blues Brothers, in which Ray Charles played the gun-toting owner of a music store and sang “Shake a Tailfeather” with the better half of the city of Chicago. Since we never listened to his music in our home growing up (my mom didn’t like the way he swayed back and forth—it made her edgy), it was by fate that my edgy roommate, through sheer and brutish acts of almost Burgessian programming, gave me my first taste of the man and his innate ability to reach right down into your gullet and extract the raw ingredients of the mysterious human phenomenon of feeling. Of course, I leapt at the chance to see the man who prophesied soul music, even though I was told not to expect much—at 73 years old, he usually only played about 30 minutes, some had heard, and his voice was weak and raspy. What a joke that turned out to be.

After a few perfunctory big-band numbers showcasing the talents of his orchestra, “Mrs. Charles’ favorite son,” as he was introduced, slowly shuffled out into the spotlight to huge brass fanfare—meticulously groomed, flashing that trademark pearly Cheshire smile, his enormous alien hands patting out the drumbeat on his knees before taking his seat at the keys for business as usual (and business is still pretty freakin’ good as far as I could tell).

“Ha-HAAA!” was the only thing he said, wasting no time in busting out classics like “Georgia on My Mind,” the classic call-and-response favorite “What I’d Say” and a slew of others in no particular order of importance, calling ’em out and laying ’em down. Curiously, the Raelettes appeared only halfway through the set for “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Smack Dab in the Middle” and a few others. In my opinion, their sweet five-part harmonies are mightily underutilized. The women have pipes, don’t ya know, and not the kind fit for municipal services.

People called out for “America” and didn’t get it. They wanted “Hit the Road Jack” too, but my man Ray just hammered his way through his hourlong set like it was his birthday and he got to pick the damn songs for a change. At his level, there are no calculated hits saved up for an emotional downswing or the triumphant encore (in fact there would be no encore at all). They’re all hits, and after 50 years in the biz you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want, and he did, bouncing and swaying, punctuating his salty licks with grunts of approval here and there.

Before we knew it, the guy had paraphrased the style of every postwar decade in his own inimitable way, but what struck me more to the core was how his compassionate blend of blues, gospel and jazz reached its most muscular, most encouraging gauge during heartbreaking ballads like “Crying Time,” and “The Brightest Smile in Town.” More than once I had to quietly pretend that there was something in my eye, explaining to the woman next to me that I was experimenting with contact lenses for the first time and was having much discomfort. She didn’t buy it, but although humiliated, I held out for the wayward rocker “Mess Around,” which he gave us in abundance just before the band took its final bows. I walked out onto the new brilliant Broadway feeling just a little better. Yes, a little bit better indeed.

—Bill Ketzer

I Don’t Feel Like You Do

Stefon Harris and Blackout
The Egg, June 6

Homeboy Stefon Harris has been burning up the jazz world for a bunch of years now, and the 30-year-old vibraphonist’s career has been marked by his refusal to stay still. He broke out with a small, young acoustic jazz quartet, then played duets with pianist Jackie Terrason, then uncorked an ambitious, sprawling, 11-movement composition, “The Grand Unification Theory,” written for 12 musicians. You can imagine the suits at the record company going apoplectic. Why, this isn’t how artists are supposed to behave! We want more of the stuff like you gave us last year!

Now Harris is going modern and avant and electric and, well, really noisy. At least that’s how it came off Friday at the Egg. Harris spent a lot of time playing his new toy, a touch-pad mallet instrument called the MalletKat. It would seem that he hasn’t had the thing for long, as he didn’t really coax that many colors out of something that, at least theoretically, can sound like absolutely anything. Mostly, it sounded like an electric piano, except for when Harris ran the sound through his mouth, using one of those Peter Frampton “Do You Feel Like I Do” gizmos. Played side by side with the real vibraphone, Harris’s electronic doodad showed mostly that natural acoustic sound is richer, more interesting, and easier on the ears that sound constructed by a machine.

Harris surrounded himself with a stellar band of players sympathetic to his new direction. Saxophonist Casey Benjamin played many of his frenetic Pharaoh Sanders-like solos through various digital effects, and when he wasn’t soloing, he was whacking away at a little keyboard— also filtering the sound, remarkably, through one of those Frampton mouth tubes. Keyboardist Marc Cary spend lot of time making ’70s retro-synthesizer sounds, only occasionally sitting down at the grand piano for some refreshing and needed grounding. Bassist Darryl Hall played very busy bass; at least he looked busy, but his playing was all but inaudible in the mix. Harris’ longtime drummer Terreon Gully may well have been the star of the show. Always fresh, inventive, and explosive, Gully is as much a joy to watch as he is to listen to. And he didn’t have any electronics going on.

The sound that predominated the brand-new, complex, and often dissonant pieces was dense to the point of claustrophobic. This, combined with a thin and abrasive sound mix, took a show that would have been challenging to listen to under the best of circumstances dangerously close to being unpleasant.

I hate to say this because I love Stefon Harris and think he’s a monster player, a genius composer, and an incredible human being. When you move around like Harris does, when you are curious and daring, you necessarily take a lot of chances and try a lot of things. Not everything is going to appeal to everybody, and that’s probably a very good thing. Harris’ latest foray is headed somewhere, and you can bet it’s someplace good. He’s just not there yet.

Local smooth-jazz guys Red Clay Jazz opened the show to a hot crowd response, with a set that featured great sax solos from Marcus Benoit and some eye-popping (and thumb-popping) bass work from Cliff Avery.

—Paul Rapp

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