By Noah Hubbell
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Alex Distefano
By Darryl Smyers
By Jon Solomon
By Britt Chester
Prior to Beck Hansen's May 22 appearance at Red Rocks, I had seen him give two of the worst performances of all time--the first in April 1994 at Boulder's Ground Zero, the second in July 1995 at Fiddler's Green as part of that year's Lollapalooza festival. These shows were dreadful in different ways: During the first date he seemed perversely determined not to provide anyone with a good time and succeeded beyond practically anyone's expectations; during the second he maundered through a mostly acoustic set so lacking in passion or dynamics that it left the several thousand people who suffered through it looking like victims of the Andromeda Strain by the time he finally, blessedly departed. In my review of Lollapalooza, I casually dismissed Beck as being "already a trivia question"--and at that point in his development, such a conclusion seemed eminently logical.
As time has proved, I was wrong. In 1996 Beck released Odelay, which even a doubter like yours truly was able to immediately recognize as a first-rate album. Then, last October, Beck headlined Mammoth Gardens, and Westword contributor Amy Kiser, who attended the date, reported to me afterward that Mr. Hansen was "really good." Given these unexpected turns, I decided to give the diminutive singer-songwriter one last chance by attending his Red Rocks debut even though the show was being opened by the Cardigans, arguably the lamest pop sensation to strike these shores since Frete. And it turned out to be a good decision. Because of a ticket snafu, I missed all but one song by the Cardigans--talk about dodging a bullet. Better yet, Beck didn't suck: He was, to coin a phrase, "really good."
The contrast between Beck's earlier appearances and his most recent was obvious from the get-go. Whereas he had previously scorned the image of an entertainer, this time he embraced it with satirical gusto. The seven members of his back-up band, mainly clad in vintage suits, preceded the star of the show to the stage a la the soul revues of the Sixties. A James Brown-like introduction later, Beck bolted into the spotlight clad in duds straight out of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. By the time he'd launched into "Devil's Haircut," from Odelay, he had already done more dancing, jumping, fist-waving and choreographed movement than in his first two Denver-area appearances combined. And that was only the first song.
No one was more aware of the contrast between Beck's twerpy-white-boy appearance and his hip-hop affectations than the man himself. The popping-and-locking, the promises to "rock your party" and "rock your orgy" (belted out in the middle of an impromptu bit rapped in part to the melody of "Jingle Bells") and the continuous exhortations to "my freaks" might have seemed like offensive caricatures of the rhythm-and-blues world were it not for Beck's sense of fun and his willingness to put the needle to himself. In short, he knew how ridiculous he looked doing b-boy robot moves (imagine David Spade as a dancer in a Toni Braxton video and you'll get the idea), but he was having such a good time that he couldn't stop himself. The corrosiveness that gave his early gigs such a bitter aftertaste was gone as well, replaced by a newfound understanding that giving people what they wanted was fine as long as it was delivered with a twist.
On occasion, the old Beck surfaced: For example, he followed up a fairly straight version of "Loser," his sonic albatross, with the snippy comment "Whoomp--there it fucking is." Moreover, he hasn't yet found a way to comfortably interweave his folkie material into a songlist currently dominated by danceable groovers. He attempted to create a transition by having the entire band accompany him on a version of "Pay No Mind (Snoozer)," from 1994's Mellow Gold, but the somnambulant ditty still stopped the show's momentum in its tracks. Beck followed with solo versions of "Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat)" and "Asshole" (a cut covered by, of all people, Tom Petty), and while he played them well, they would have sounded better in a coffeehouse than in an amphitheater. The only tune in this segment that got the crowd going was a variation on "One Foot in the Grave," a bluesy holler that found Beck energetically huffing into a harmonica. In the midst of it, one concertgoer near me declared, in a somewhat surprised tone, "Hey, he's talented."
Well, yeah--and he's canny as well. The renditions of songs like "Hotwax," "The New Pollution," "Jack-Ass" and "Where It's At" were not as musically complex as the ones on Odelay, but by streamlining them to some degree, Beck and his assistants were able to put them over without entirely denuding them--a genuine accomplishment. So, too, was the way in which Beck managed to keep his sometimes sarcastic sense of humor from toppling into bitterness. When his drummer played a riff reminiscent of the one that kicks off "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," he said, "Uh-oh--intimations of U2." But rather than slam the four lads from Ireland (which is, after all, my job), he made a joke that cut himself as deeply as it did them. "Don't worry," he pledged good-naturedly. "We'll refrain from any flag-waving or gymnastics."