depression: Beck at SPAC. Photo
by Martin Benjamin.
Beck, Dashboard Confessional, the Black Keys
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.
way: Ray Charles at the Palace.Photo
by Joe Putrock.
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).
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.
Don’t Feel Like You Do
Stefon Harris and Blackout
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
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.