It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Beck live in Australia. I remember first seeing him play solo acoustic at the Melbourne Showgrounds in late 1995 as part of the Summersalt lineup. He was an emerging talent back then and was sandwiched in between Pavement and Sonic Youth on the bill 6 months prior to his breakthrough album “Odelay” being released. Seeing him here again 22 years later it seemed like no time had gone by. Actually I tell a lie – looking around the crowd there were a lot of 25 year olds trapped in 48 year old bodies and I was one of them.
Testament to the weariness of my aged bones, the walk from Abbotsford to Melbourne Park saw me head straight to the St John’s Ambulance first aid room on arrival having suffered a face disfiguring allergic reaction somewhere in the vicinity of Punt Road and Victoria Street so I heard the first half of the opener Meg Mac perched on the edge of a gurney. Fortunately the antihistamine was quick to kick in and I could hear the Melbourne R&B artist and Triple J Unearthed alumni from the comfort of my seat in the stand. Playing songs mainly from her 2017 album Low Blows, she put in a solid performance with her full band.
Opening with ‘Devil’s Haircut’, Beck cut a tiny figure in front of his 8 piece band but he really is a powerhouse. He has swapped the white disco suit for black jeans and a leather jacket these days brandishing what looked to be a ’60s Silvertone guitar. The sound for the first 5 songs was not coming through the side line arrays much to the crowd’s chagrin so it was difficult to hear his opening remarks. He had the crowd despite this with an ambitious sing along only 2 songs in with ‘Black Tambourine’ – I thought it sounded pretty good as he launched into ‘The New Pollution’ but once the extra switch or whatever it was kicked in, the whole atmosphere and his performance clicked over into top gear.
Beck had the moves and the suave demeanour of a hybrid Michael Jackson/Prince/Mick Jagger throughout the performance as he moonwalked and strutted around the stage and refreshingly did not take himself too seriously. He was constantly cracking up the audience with witty and sometimes self depreciating remarks. Beck’s versatility of style has always seen him as a bit of a musical chameleon. His songs run the gamut of rock, soul, industrial, hip hop, power pop, Americana and electronica but his ability to take things to the next level both stylistically and musically was something to behold. He is a master of the perfect set list and the way each style transitioned seamlessly from one genre to the next whilst at the same time staying uniquely true to himself.
The middle section of the set featured Beck in solo acoustic mode, once again highlighting his ability to connect with his audience as a songwriter as well as a performer. It takes a special kind of performer to be able to go from full blown industrial rock to solo acoustic within the space of about half an hour as he told the audience “I’m just gonna catch my breath here for a second” and launched into a few songs from “Morning Phase”, the album he didn’t tour here. He took the opportunity to play a fantastic version of The Korgis’ ‘Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime’ as well as Prince’s ‘Raspberry Beret’ but the highlight of this section was probably ‘Debra’ from his “Midnite Vultures” album. He decided to twist this song with some local references by changing the name ‘Debra’ to ‘Sheila’ and the car ‘Hyundai’ to a ‘Daewoo’ throughout the song and the crowd lapped it up. Again he wasn’t afraid to laugh at himself as he noticed a flicker out of the corner of his eye saying “I’m loving the one man lighter over there” going on to say it was the story of his career!
Changing it back up to heavy rock and launching into ‘Wow’ from his latest album “Colors”, Beck’s band was beyond amazing. With Jason Falkner of Jellyfish and The Grays acclaim on lead guitar, synth and harmonies, also an amazing songwriter and solo artist in his own right, he had the perfect wingman. It was great to watch the interaction and rapport they had together on stage and the joy was infectious as he asked the crowd to “Give us one of those Owen Wilson ‘wows’ – you know you wanna do it” and yes the whole place erupted on command.
The encore began with ‘Loser’ from “Mellow Gold”, his first big radio hit from back in 1993 followed by the iconic ‘Where It’s At’ and featuring one of the best band introductions I’ve ever witnessed. As had been the theme of the evening, Beck was all about taking things to the next level. Not only did he introduce each band member, but he allocated each person a theme song and performed this theme song as part of the introductions proclaiming he was going to bask in the smoke machine. Dwayne Moore on bass got Chic’s ‘Good Times’, Jason Falkner ‘Miss You by the Rolling Stones complete with Jagger moves, Multi instrumentalists and backing singing trio collectively known as the B53s Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’ and drummer Chris Coleman who was an absolute powerhouse had Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’ as his crowning glory. The highlight of these introductions had to be Roger Manning, also of Jellyfish fame, on keys who did the best and most unexpected impersonation of Michael McDonald from the Doobie Brothers with ‘Taking it to the Streets’. Finishing with a reprise of ‘Where It’s At’, it was time for the moonwalking pocket rocket to call it a night but what a night it was. Let’s hope next time he waits less than 6 years to come back now that we’ve been reminded of what we’ve been missing all this time.