Beck and all: The alt-rock deity is distracted at the Pearl

Clad in a black fedora and leather jacket, LA alt-rock deity Beck played a blues and garage-rock heavy show to a restless crowd at the Pearl Wednesday night.

Without a new album to promote, the 90-minute set surveyed Beck’s nearly 25-year career, though ultimately favored the genre-bending artist’s more traditional rock albums like Modern Guilt, Sea Change and Guero.

The evening’s highlight was undoubtedly the return of Beck’s touring band from his 1998 record Mutations, who proved that Beck isn’t truly Beck without ‘em. The amphetamine funk of Justin Meldal-Johnsen’s bass lines and Smokey Hormel’s creeping, understated guitar are part of what make Beck’s style distinctive—not to mention their stage presence.

Meldal-Johnsen played like a wind-up toy on a sugar high, hopping, grinning and spinning across the stage while licking his bass for good measure. Hormel cradled his guitar like a lover, sometimes playing it with a violin bow, other times with his teeth.

But while the band was into it, you couldn’t quite say the same for Beck or the crowd. Despite Meldal-Johnsen’s best efforts, the energy level both onstage and in the theater never quite reached the critical mass expected for an artist of Beck’s repute. It’s difficult to say whose apathy was influencing whom: In the crowd, fans talked among themselves throughout the set (so much so that the din at times competed with the music), moving restlessly around the venue and whooping obliviously when Beck asked for silence. Beck himself seemed distracted and came in late on more than a few verses. You could tell that he’s been doing this a very long time: While his voice and playing were technically strong, they lacked the conviction that makes his languorous rapping on “Where It’s At” so delightfully weird or the resigned ache on “Lost Cause” so heartbreaking.

On one hand you can’t blame him; those are his “Freebirds” and the soundtrack to every vaguely hip car commercial made in the last 20 years. But if you’re going to do a tour that surveys your hits, make sure those are the songs you want to be playing.

Beck did redeem himself at the end of the set, while playing the heavy grunge tune “Mutherf*cker.” Seeing that the crowd wasn’t in the mood for fuzz bass and screaming, he stopped the song and asked the band to come up with a different version “so the casino people can dance.” The group improvised a hilariously cheesy disco rendition of the song, which the audience—and Beck—were more than happy to dance to. It was fun, surreal and unexpected; finally, it was truly Beck.

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