Beck Showed Off His Many Personas at the Riverside
With his hip-hop-shaded funk, folk and quirk
rock, no artist embodied the post-genre ideal of the ’90s quite like Beck. He
rapped like a Beastie Boy, danced like a robot, and spoke with the slackery nonchalance
of Stephen Malkmus (even as he played to alternative rock’s wider audience, he
was always keenly dialed into the sensibilities of indie-rock, which may be why
his brand has held up better than, say, Soul Coughing’s).
He’s such an ageless presence that it’s easy to forget how long he’s been around. He’s tied to some of my earliest memories of music fandom. One of the first purchases I ever made at a Sam Goody was the cassette single of “Loser” (its B-side was “Alcohol,” an early indication this guy’s album cuts weren’t nearly on the level of his singles). In high school, I skateboarded to Odelay. In college, Midnite Vultures soundtracked parties, while Sea Change became one of my go-to albums for wallowing in self-pity (unlike the pop-punk or emo that usually served this purpose, this album scanned as sophisticated, probably mostly because it had strings on it).
Yet for a musician so indelibly tied to my youth, one I’ve been listening to for most of my life, it’s almost astounding how little of a bond I’ve formed with him as an artist. Beyond a piece of cocktail trivia about his religious beliefs, I barely know anything about the guy, and that seems to be by design. Though his stage persona changes from album to album, it’s always clear that at least on some level it’s an act—even his seemingly confessional records, like Morning Phase, the one that earned the Album of the Year Grammy most of the world believes was rightfully Beyoncé’s, have the same air of genre exercise about them as his party-funk records. He sings about feelings, but he doesn’t necessarily seem to be singing about himself. Heartbreak, like his party-bot or oversexed soul singer routines, becomes its own kind of burlesque.
Wednesday night at the Riverside Theater—or Tuesday night, as Beck kept referring to it (how weird it was to see a guy that boyish have such a sustained senior moment)—Beck demonstrated that he’s still a game performer and all-around agreeable dude. But if for his first Milwaukee concert in 20 years you were looking for any insight into what makes him tick—why he makes the music he does, and what it means to him—it wasn’t going to happen.
Instead, backed by a buzzy seven-piece band, he rocketed through a 90 minute set that kept the jams coming (an opening run of “Devil’s Haircut,” “Black Tambourine” and “The New Pollution” set the pace) and, delivered nearly all the expected hits, “Sexx Laws,” “E-Pro,” “Where It’s At” and “Loser” among them. Even the Sea Change/Morning Phase songs didn’t kill the mood—a bombastic version of “Blue Moon” was one of the night’s highs. The only missing fan favorite was “Debra,” a song that, despite a cute homage in this year’s delightful musical action flick Baby Driver, has all the racial sensitivity of a drunk college kid shouting Chappelle’s Show catch phrases.
Beck didn’t need to give any more than he did Wednesday night. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment for entertainment’s sake, and not all musicians need to bleed for their art, or sacrifice their privacy for the titillation of their fans. Still, even if it’s a selfish request, I still wish the real Beck would show himself from time to time. He’s a legacy artist now, one who’s likely to be around for decades to come. And if he’s going to keep soundtracking my life, it would be nice to know a little about the guy.