Beck, Cité de la Musique, Paris, France, 2nd July 2013 (part of the Days Off Festival)
One of the best things about seeing Beck play live is that you never really know what you’re going to get. This concert was billed as ‘solo acoustic’ (although on my ticket a mysterious question mark appeared after the singer’s name – whether this was to create an air of mystery or just because they honestly didn’t know, it’s impossible to say). I’ve seen Beck a few times before, each time with a different kind of band, a different sort of set-up, and playing different sets of songs. Ten years ago he had a huge, Prince-esque funk band in tow, and played a set of highly choreographed hits from his millennial funk album Midnite Vultures. A couple of years later he was going it alone in the Royal Albert Hall, a tiny figure with acoustic guitar, upright piano and synth, playing beautifully realised versions of folk tunes mostly from his Sea Change album.
Since then Beck has released a further four albums, their styles ranging from apocalyptic hip-hop to electronically enhanced folk-rock, to bizarre left-field pop. Song Reader, his most recent album, wasn’t even recorded but was released only as a collection of sheet music – which might seem like a bit of a gimmick until you glance through it, strum a few of the chords, and realise the quality of the tunes.
So, until Beck stepped onto the stage – in fact, until he finally vanished back into the wings to a standing ovation after the final encore – anything was possible.
Paris: what better place to watch a Beck show? Cité de la Musique is situated in in the 19th arrondissement in the Parc de la Villette, formerly the slaughterhouse district, now a huge park full of domes, sculptures and enormous modernist buildings and other wonderful cultural detritus. It seems to have been beamed wholesale from some nineteen-sixties vision of a utopian future and dumped next to a road full of cheap fast-food eateries and pavement-sprawling bars and restaurants. The venue itself consists of a number of strange and beautiful buildings, all slopes and curves and odd angles. Built around a decent sized concert hall, Cité de la Musique also hosts an enormous collection of musical instruments dating from the 15th century onwards. Right here cultures collide: sci-fi structures house dusty relics of the Renaissance; beggars beg stylishly dressed girls for cigarettes as images of outer-space flit around inside mirrored geodesic domes; tourists and locals saunter lazily through the half-crazed traffic in a gritty paroxysm of urban mundanity. Again, what better place to watch a Beck show?
It was hot, very hot. The afternoon had been warm, but the evening saw the heat rise not fall. The air was sopping with moisture like some tropical swamp. We sat in languid excitement, three rows from the front, feeling the temperature and humidity rise as the seats behind us were gradually filled by chic Parisian derrières. Eventually the seats were full – and yet more people poured in, the stewards directing them to patches of floor in front of the stage where, after half-hearted grumblings, they sat expectantly. Finally the theatre, like the air, was saturated – it could hold no more. We hovered like droplets in a cloud of excitement, releasing claps of proto-thunderous applause for every roadie who wandered onto the stage to check the guitars were holding their tuning in the hot, damp air.
Then Beck strolled onto the stage, not solo but with a band of two other men, a pianist and a bassist. Beck picked up his acoustic guitar, slung his harp round his neck, and after a brief bonsoir, strummed the first chords of The Golden Age. His voice, deep and powerful, echoed through the theatre. He ended the song to rapturous applause. Then the bassist traded his four strings for six, and the band broke into Lost Cause, weaving a complex fabric of tangling melodic threads which, in terms of sheer musical beauty, was the high-light of the show.
From the next song (Jackass) onwards, it became clear that the band had not played together very much, and were still finding their feet. Indeed, before playing O Maria Beck apologised, saying that he hadn’t played it for fifteen years, and wasn’t sure how it went. This became apparent as they jammed through it, improvising solos and lyrics, totally altering the structure as they went, forgetting bits, strumming chords that clashed and notes that didn’t always fit. The band played a few of the songs in this apparently unrehearsed, improvised way, throughout the set, consciously choosing songs they didn’t know so well and then seemingly blagging their way through them. This approach worked better on some songs than others, but when it worked the results were electric. Beck, ever the iconoclast, had discarded the heavily rehearsed and shiny sound audiences in an x-factor world have come to expect from performers at his level, ditching accuracy for a ramshackle experiment in improvised performance. And what a performance.
With dead-pan wit, Beck dragged the audience down with him into into a swamp of sometimes folksy but never whimsical ballads, half-remembered cover versions and drum-machine beats. An improvised acoustic medley of hits Devil’s Haircut and Where It’s At , half-heartedly strummed to a beat of audience hand-claps, was a high point, as was the always brilliant, foot-stomping harmonica work-out One Foot In The Grave. Some songs were jammed along to an old Korg drum machine, which Beck described as “from the Seventies, like me.” He stabbed the buttons wildly, punching beats on-the-fly, closing each song with ridiculous pre-programmed drum fills. This was not Odelay Beck, Midnite Vultures Beck, Beck as Country Singer or Hip-Hop Star; this was capricious, foot-stomping, early-nineties, storm-trooper-helmeted New York coffee-shop Beck, jumping on before the next hardcore band to bust out his latest leaf-blower ballads and anti-protest songs.
Beck whipped out some songs that don’t normally get played, just the sort of songs you definitely would not play in your first Paris gig this decade if you cared about selling records and making new fans. And yet the audience loved it. He played songs like Asshole (famously covered by Tom Petty), Rowboat (famously covered by Jonny Cash), Hollow Log, He’s a Mighty Good Leader and covers of songs by The Korgis and John Lennon. Beck and his band (by this time he’d christened ‘Morocco’) ended the main set with a Korg-led version of country-funk tune Sissyneck; which quickly mutated into a loose medley of Billie Jean and Get It On, and saw Beck’s wife and young son, who had been lurking at the edge of the stage throughout, join him on-stage for a bit of a family boogie.
By this time, the air was boiling, and if it had been a standing auditorium I think most of us would have ended up sitting down anyway, or else just collapsing. But Beck and band returned for a final round of encores – and this time with special guests. Air’s Nicolas Godin (introduced as ‘Nico’) took to the grand piano, accompanying Beck in his cover of The Velvet Underground’s Sunday Morning. Then (as if that wasn’t enough) Charlotte Gainsbourg wandered onto the stage to sing, in duet, her own Beck-penned hit Heaven Can Wait, thereby bringing the house well and truly down. Finally the band launched into a frantic, drum machine-led rendition of Gamma Ray – then au revoir!