Beck – El Rey Theatre (Los Angeles, CA)
Critical darling and platinum seller, Beck the white-boy hip-hopper-folky-faux-James-Brown-punk-jokester is a bona fide star in the alt-rock ’90s. But as postmodern as his breakthrough release Odelay is, Beck seems equally at home, if not more so, bowing at the feet of folks such as Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Dylan and Sonny Terry. Time and again, while MTV airs the video for “The New Pollution” for the umpteenth time, the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter might be found working out his rootsy ya-yas elsewhere. He’s strummed with Willie Nelson on “The Tonight Show”, he’s done solo acoustic sets opening for Johnny Cash and Neil Young, and on 1994’s One Foot In The Grave, he devoted and entire album to such sounds. Even his slacker anthem “Loser” owes as much to Dylan and the Delta blues as it does to hip-hop.
At L.A.’s 900-seat El Rey Theatre, Beck once against ditched his day job for an evening coined “Beck Acoustic With Friends” — his friends in this case being a resume-heavy band that included Smokey Hormel (guitar), Jay Dee Maness (pedal steel), 19-year-old wunderkind Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Little Feat’s Billy Payne (piano) and Beck’s regular rhythm section of Justin Meldal-Johnsen (bass) and Joey Waronker (drums). In fact, Odelay became “yodelay” early on, as the scrawny artist led the band through a frisky version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Peach Pickin’ Time In Georgia”.
Other early moments, such as a bluegrass take on the Doors’ “Light My Fire” and a reoccurring, barn-burning instrumental “Red Ball Special” soon proved that this was not just any ol’ yokely joke. When a fan hollered for “Achy Breaky Heart”, Beck responded, “I can’t do that without my headset, buddy.”
Hardcore country soon gave way to a loose, nomadic set of Beck’s own country/folk/blues musings, such as the shuffle-y, poignant “Meet Me On The Moon”, the overtly Springsteen-ish “Heartland Feelin'”, the crowd favorite “Asshole” and the acid-laced sentiments of “Painted Eyelids”.
During a solo acoustic stretch, Beck mined virtually all edges of Americana with as much authority as he had classic country moments before. A cover of the old folk tune “John Hardy”, complete with stunningly clear and powerful harmonica work, evoked early Dylan, while his own “He’s A Mighty Good Leader” was a spiritual seemingly straight outta the Appalachians. And when the band — one that was ultimately underused — vamped the tail end of Beck’s recent hit “Jackass”, they worked fiddles, pianos and pedal steels into something truly otherworldly.
Nothing, though, topped Beck’s take on Sonny Terry’s “One Foot In The Grave”. Here he was, armed with nothing but a harp and voice, whipping both crowd and himself into near-Pentecostal fervor. Maybe the furthest thing from his sample-heavy work with the Dust Brothers, “One Foot” was no less supersonic, no less adventurous — and no less Beck.