Blood had already been spilled before the first song even ended.
“I think I just cut my thumb open,” Beck told an excited crowd at San Francisco’s Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium on Friday night, as he put on a Band-Aid. “That’s an auspicious way to start.”
The bloodletting occurred during a passionate, acoustic rendition of “The Golden Age,” a whimsically melancholy composition Beck chose to set the night in motion with.
Backed by a guitar-heavy, five-piece band, Beck played a straight two-hour set for the sold out house, marking the first show in the newly renovated venue.
“There’s no opener so we’re our own opener,” Beck explained to the audience. He expressed relief in having the opportunity to play a full-length show on the heels of a long summer festival circuit.
“We’re going to stretch out a bit,” he said, noting, almost apologetically, an intention to ease into the evening with a selection of acoustic songs from his new album Morning Phase. Released earlier this year to high acclaim, the collection of mostly understated ballads bears resemblance in tone to his earlier release Sea Change; both albums highlight the more somber, introspective side of the artist, evoking his roots as an emotive, stripped-down troubadour. In all, Beck performed about half the album, interspersed with a handful of older ballads and a rare rendition – a response to an audience request – of the sublimely sardonic “Asshole” from his lesser-known 1994 release One Foot in the Grave.
Beck has long established himself as among the most imaginative and versatile musicians in the field of contemporary(ish) rock. Over the course of his 25-year career, he’s consistently stretched the limits of the genre, producing refreshingly unique, accessible music that doesn't sacrifice integrity or innovation. Also, there are few performers who can match Beck’s outpouring of creativity; music literally emanates from the man, and it’s satisfying to watch that process on stage. Put simply, the guy has produced a lot of really good tunes, and that nearly guarantees a solid performance repertoire.
Friday’s show was no exception.
Roughly 40 minutes in, the band transitioned rapidly from the evening’s softer beginnings to the distortion-laden, full-fledged rock portion of the performance. Retiring the acoustic guitar and donning his hallmark black Amish-style hat, Beck launched into a loud, adrenaline-fueled delivery of some of the biggest crowd-pleasers in his arsenal, including the sample-heavy tunes “Devil’s Haircut,” “Where It’s At” and “Girl.” Among the highlights was the hit “Think I’m in Love,” which morphed seamlessly into Donna Summer’s dance floor-burner “I Feel Love.”
Although Beck gave the audience what they’d clearly come for, the evening’s performance at times had a somewhat of an uninspired feel. A number of songs were played too fast and came across as muddy sounding. There was also little effort made at improvisation; with a few exceptions at the end of the show, most songs were played through somewhat mechanically, offering glimpses of the artist’s genius without revealing his full potential.
Additionally, while the newly renovated auditorium is quite comfortable and includes a nice new stage-level open floor plan, the sound quality in the seated balcony above was lacking; many of the songs, particularly the one’s with heavy distortion, sounded too loud and off-balance.
Despite these shortcomings, the entertainment factor remained high throughout the evening. Beck is a strikingly small man -- no more than 5 feet 7 inches, the rail-thin pale blond could be easily mistaken for a wiry teenager, despite he being 44 years old. Also, his physical stature belies the robustness of his voice and stage presence. A consummate showman, Beck was playfully impish, sliding across the stage with an unencumbered sense of youthfulness and pleasure while exhibiting a refreshing lack of self-righteous and healthy dose of silliness – a mood echoed by three members of the band during the song "E-Pro," which devolved into a wrestling pile-up, as Beck calmly rolled a strip of yellow caution tape across the stage.
“Anything can happen tonight,” he added during a version of his smarmy soul-parody “Debra.” “I can smell the possibilities. It’s getting hot in here. I want to take off my clothes.”
In the end, the clothes stayed on, and the band finished off the evening with a high-energy, solo-infused version of the '90s classic “Where’s it At.”
- "The Golden Age"
- "Blackbird Chain"
- "Blue Moon"
- "Say Goodbye"
- "Heart Is a Drum"
- "Country Down"
- "Lost Cause"
- "Waking Light"
- "Devil’s Haircut"
- "Black Tambourine"
- "Hell Yes"
- "Think I’m in Love"
- "Soul of a Man"
- "Where It’s At"