Beck in Toronto
Photo by Bill Kelly
Since storming the pop culture consciousness with the tongue-in-cheek slacker anthem "Loser", during the height of the grunge era, Beck has been one of the most intriguing solo artists and musical chameleons in the game. Twenty years later, his mass appeal may be a thing of the past, but his abilities are no less awesome. In addition to his enigmatic persona and somewhat mysterious allegiance to the church of Scientology, the California maverick has assembled a prolific catalog from which to pluck material when performing live. After a six year absence from Toronto, Beck returned with his mixed bag of tricks, a familiar/fantastic backing lineup, and a strong new album to parade.
The show was split into three distinct thematic portions, the first of which qualified as a Greatest Hits mini-set. "Devil's Haircut" - the opening track from 1997's Odelay - was followed by "Black Tambourine" - a standout from the celebrated 2005 LP Guero. This one-two punch announced the albums that would dominate the playlist throughout the night, and two more Odelay cuts - a casual take on smash hit "The New Pollution" and a blazing version of "Hotwax" - bookended an early appearance of "Loser" as the primary chunk of the night swept up fans in a torrent of funky nostalgia. The rhythm section of Joey Waronker and Justin Meldal-Johnsen, delivering roaring fills and quirky multi-instrumentation respectively, pushed the tunes to energetic heights while their diminutive ringleader sauntered calmly about.
After claiming he had "found a guitar solo from 1987 and brought it up on stage," Beck shifted into spirited revivalist mode with a solo vocal/harmonica take on the stripped down "One Foot In The Grave" - the oldest song that would be played (not to be mistaken with its identically-titled album from the same era). The audience clapped along with increasing tempo, before Beck signaled a close to the brief hoedown and brought his band back on stage for the centerpiece trifecta of "Hell Yes" > "Modern Guilt" > "I Think I'm In Love". This second section of the set flaunted Beck's bizarro-electronic might, heavy on the synths and strutting beats. Both Busta Rhymes and Donna Summer lyrics were thrown into the mix, tips of the cap to a pair of magnetic peers, as dancing season smoked its way to fruition.
The requisite cool down to follow was not only a logical stylistic shift, but wholly expected in light of "Morning Phase" - Beck's latest offering, and a return to his acoustic-driven balladry of albums past. The conduit for this third movement was "Paper Tiger" - a fan favorite from 2002's Sea Change LP, which featured the same musicians as this current tour. Beck had the courage to reference some recent reviews he'd read, in which writers called the new material "boring", before trotting out five consecutive "Morning Phase" songs and putting any such notions to rest. Those bored by the spacious melancholy of "Blue Moon" or the melodic fortitude of "Blackbird Chain" were at the wrong concert to begin with. Beck has always been a creator for the completist among us, gracing each of his varied atmospheric efforts with genuine intent.
Circling back to the Greatest Hits well for his finale, Beck leaned once again on Guero - with the poppy summer jam "Girl" and the show-stopping "E-Pro" closing the main set - before the bouncy revelry of "Sexx Laws" led off the encore as the lone representative from 1999's deliciously experimental Midnite Vultures album. With a few choice words on his own perceived sense of irony, and a pause during band introductions for the requisite Canadian-Content tease (in this case, a snippet of Rush's "Spirit of Radio"), Beck finished in triumphant fashion via the breezy rap/rock groove of his classic cut "Where It's At". His sold out theater audience had been on their feet the whole night, and the applause as Beck bowed and took his leave was deafening. Perhaps now relegated to cult status, in the grand scheme of popular music, Beck remains brilliant as ever to those who have been on board for the entirety of the ride. He's the kind of "Loser" any budding artist would strive to become, and he has many phases yet to discover.