Midway through his headlining set at the Treasure Island Music Festival Sunday night, the crowd roared as Beck launched into the immediately identifiable slide guitar intro to "Loser." The ecstatic response to the now-iconic anthem of downward mobility, which vaulted the idiosyncratic, baby-faced artist to international stardom, would have come as little surprise save the fact that, by the looks of them, the majority of crowd-goers were likely still in diapers when the tune hit the charts nearly two decades ago.
It's a testament to the enduring resonance and pioneering sounds of the man's compositions, a prolific portfolio that's remained refreshingly original, eclectic and consistently contagious for the better part of a quarter-century. Beck is, above all, a master of genre-dabbling: using his distinctively-layered foundation of folk-blues, hip-hop and rock as a base from which to sonically frolic, embarking on brief forays into everything from disco to mariachi (and yes, the legend is true: in 2005, he pulled off an anonymous solo performance at Pancho Villa Taqueria in the Mission, while oblivious customers scarfed down burritos).
The unbounded musical range was on display Sunday night, as Beck, clad in bright red blazer, black Stetson hat and a flowing scarf, pranced across the stage in the final fog-filled hour of the weekend-long festival. Accompanied by his four-piece band, the artist delved immediately into a tight set list full of career-spanning radio hits, opening with a succinct but strong rendition of "Devil's Haircut," the sample-heavy single from Odelay, his 1996 platinum album.
Photo: Josh Withers
Given the brief time slot of the performance, Beck covered an impressive expanse of musical ground. Playing no less than 20 songs in under 90 minutes, he sampled from the majority of his discography, with tracks as disparate as the hip-shaking hit "Girl," the more recent "Modern Guilt," and an unexpected rendition of "Debra," the ironic neo-soul tune from Midnight Vultures, his 2004 R&B/Disco collection. (The song opens with the profound line: "I met you at JC Penney. I think your name tag said Jenny.")
A seemingly unrehearsed rendition of the song "Let's Get Lost," sung with Sleigh Bells vocalist Alexis Krauss, fell a bit flat, but was more than made up for by the beautiful acoustic renditions played shortly thereafter of "The Golden Age" and "Lost Cause," two haunting ballads from the ethereal, downcast 2002 release Sea Change. The songs were the perfect accompaniment to the mystical backdrop, with fabric jellyfish on sticks undulating in the wind, shimmering gracefully as the man-made island in the Bay became shrouded in a blanket of fog.
Photo: Josh Withers
The one tradeoff for covering a lot of hits in a short period was a dip in performance quality. For the most part, Beck and his band played concise, somewhat formulaic versions of the songs, with little room for improvisation or elaborate showmanship. There was also very little featured new material. Regardless, the songs played were so good, the performers so smooth, that even the most straightforward run-throughs were quite satisfying.
It was fitting that Beck headlined a festival geared towards up-and-coming rock and electronic groups trying to establish themselves on the periphery of pop music -- just the type of venue that Beck himself could have been discovered at 25 years ago. And one of the most valuable takeaways that his protégés could glean from his success is the virtue of not taking oneself too seriously. It's a quality that has been consistently evident in Beck's music: for all his experimental, groundbreaking, and innovative compositions, and his serious contributions to the music industry, there has always existed a degree of playfulness and a lack of inhibition that allows him to pull off stuff that few others can. It's as though he's so cool because cool isn't something he particularly cares about being. There is little sense of self-righteousness in Beck's musical stylings, in his propensity to not automatically eschew pop music, but instead take up the challenge of stretching its limits. He has demonstrated that a widely-appealing composition need not be generic or cliché, and that great music can the push the limits while remaining immediately fun and accessible.
The notion was well expressed at various points throughout the show. Early on, the band took a short break allowing Beck a moment alone on stage. Leading off with a short harmonica solo, he preceded to chant an acapella rendition of "One Foot in the Grave," off his debut album. The image of this shaggy, blond-haired, small, white dude, who could still be mistaken for a teenager, singing a solo gospel-style folk-blues tune before an audience of thousands, would seem a bit ridiculous. But he pulled it off, filling out the expansive stage with his voice alone.
And then there was the version of the song "Sissyneck" that slid seamlessly into a cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." Midway through, Beck halted the song, looked across the hipster-laden crowd and yelled: "I'm tired of this. I want to see you dance," and then unsuccessfully attempted the moonwalk.