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Beck Performs Acoustic Concert at Northwestern University
August 9, 2002
By Beth Malloy
(more articles from this author)
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A stripped down, unplugged Beck came into tiny Pick-Staiger Hall and hammed it up for a small band of reverent Beck heads in an intimate two and a half hour show. The improvised, semi-solo show was unplugged in the sense that the plug was partially in the socket; disaster was a serious risk. The twenty-date tour is in sharp contrast to 2000's worldwide, funked up stadium extravaganza that incorporated 12 players and an elaborate stage. This time around, the man of many musical moods went mostly solo and joked directly with the audience of 1000 rather than hiding behind his rock star persona.

Beck began by taking a stool, guitar in hand, claiming the stool was among the rules in the unplugged handbook, he then sheepishly acknowledged he had not finished reading the revered tome. He went off tangentially to explain that if he ever had to take a symbol for a name (see Prince) it would have to be a semi-colon, "because, you have the start of a thought (pause) then you finish the thought."

"No "Loser", or "Lord Only Knows" (from Odelay!) and only a brief teaser from "Where It's At," the music was kept firmly in the roots and folk tradition. There were one or two early technical glitches that didn't alter the mood at all as he handled it by giggling. The small stage was littered with an array of instruments and Beck moved randomly among them throughout the show. There was an upright piano, two electric keyboards, several acoustic and electric guitars, a squeezebox, and a drum machine. Bouncing from instrument to instrument, he appeared to be in need of his Ritalin: acoustic, electric, autistic, eclectic.

Much of the material played was from 1998's Grammy winning MUTATIONS, and his upcoming release, tentatively titled SEA CHANGE, due out September 24. Opening with "Cold Brains," "Jack-ass" and a cover of Hank Williams "Lonesome Whistle," he moved to the box on the floor for "Nobody's Fault But My Own," a tune all the more haunting when accompanied by only the whine of an accordion. The song was followed by more banter and a balcony-bound fan shouted a question as to whether or not sampling was stealing, another audience member promptly shouted back "Asshole." Without missing a beat, Beck grinned slyly and began strumming the opening of his 1994 version of "Asshole."

After banging out a foot-stomping "Bottle of Blues" and "Sissyneck," Beck ad-libbed a four verse song about Chicago on a keyboard, singing how "people in Chicago are so much cooler than me" and moving on to how "the cold will rip your face off." Beck had played on an anthology of 30's oddball Harry Smith's work in 2000 and has covered Smith's work on the road. He began a string of covers, including John Lennon's "Love" and Big Star's "Kangaroo," with Smith's "Down by the Banks of the Ohio," a lovely little song in which the narrator kills a woman because she won't commit to him.

For several songs in the set Beck was joined by instrumentalist extraordinaire, Smokey Hormel, who has recently toured with Tom Waits. Hormel added an accomplished flavor to the festivities, and his virtuosity as a session player came to the fore during the closer "Tropicalia." The drum machine was finally used and as they jammed through an extended version, Beck took an empty seat in the front row saying it had been staring at him all night and looked comfortable. He gave the show over briefly to Hormel and the drum machine, cheering Hormel on and chatting with the people on either side. He borrowed a woman's pink tinted sunglasses and moved up to a keyboard and continued the song, tossing out an accurate imitation of Paul Schaffer. Two encores later they ended the show with "Dead Melodies" to an ovation one would not expect in such a small setting.

Early in the show Beck talked about his upcoming release (currently being parceled out in streaming audio on the site) and the more extensive fall tour to follow. He mentioned he had lined up the veteran Flaming Lips to both open the shows and replace his back-up band. The Lips are currently on the road with Cake on a festival run supporting Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots that concludes in late August. A concert involving the combination of this experimental trio and the little alterna-prince would likely be more inclusive of his older, more mainstream work and offer an interesting interplay of styles.

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