Beck, Ambassador Theatre, Dublin, 1st May 2003
When you think of Beck, the image of a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky guy doesn't automatically spring to mind. A bit of an oddball, perhaps, but someone whose black humour can be a little uncomfortable at times. And if his most recent album, "Sea Change", is anything to go by, you might even be forgiven for assuming that the guy is about to slit his wrists one of these fine days - songs like 'Already dead' and 'Lonesome tears' don't exactly inspire confidence in Beck's mental health.
So when his show at Dublin's Ambassador Theatre was promoted as a solo, acoustic performance, it seemed a fairly safe bet to anticipate plenty of low-fi songs and quiet reflections. Wearing a geeky jacket and flares, Beck opened up with 'Golden age' and seemed to be setting the stage for a sombre night of mellow introspection. With no more embellishment than an acoustic guitar, his voice was surprisingly powerful and resonant, a fact that can sometimes get lost amidst the typically experimental sounds of his recorded albums.
Anybody who thought that Beck would be simply strumming a guitar, however, was in for a surprise. He was joined onstage by his "Japanese friend, Roland" (a loop machine), five acoustic guitars, a blues guitar, a creaky old piano, a keyboard, a Würlitzer organ, a couple of harmonicas and all manner of obscure instruments so that he resembled some crazy scientist in an experimental music laboratory.
What followed was a night of pure manic entertainment with Beck as the accomplished host of this one-man show. He switched styles easily throughout the night, deftly turning his hand from guitar blues to gentle piano to freeform jazz. What was possibly the biggest surprise, though, was his self-deprecatory sense of humour and witty comments throughout the night. Regaling us with tales of his formative days as a folk-singer, he had the crowd in stitches as recounted some of his many mishaps that, he said, "should really be documented in the 'How Not to be a Folk Singer' handbook".
Roland, the beat box "with an artistic temperament", refused to co-operate on quite a few occasions and, at one stage, poor Beck even slipped off his stool, but he handled these minor setbacks with bumbling good humour and improvised when necessary. Over the course of the night, the crowd was treated to impromptu renditions that ranged from Nelly's 'Hot in here' to Prince's 'Raspberry beret', with snippets of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen thrown in to liven up the mix.
He almost seemed to be making up the set list as he went along, launching into a mock-sinister "Hammer Horror" version of 'Cry me a river' that really gave Justin Timberlake a run for his money. Survivor's 'Eye of the tiger' was requested by a friendly heckler in the crowd and, after mimicking the guy's Dublin accent, he turned the song's unmistakeable riff into the night's recurring theme and repeated it just for laughs throughout the evening.
But of course, the crowd was there to hear Beck's own music and he didn't disappoint. 'Fourteen rivers, fourteen floods', 'Sissyneck' and 'Bottle of blues' were just some of the highlights and 'Lost cause' took on an extra pathos when stripped of all backing except his acoustic guitar. Beck seems comfortable playing any instrument close to hand and it was this variation and air of unpredictability that kept the crowd rapt for two hours and twenty minutes - no mean feat when you're a one-man band.
The tempo was upped considerably when he abandoned the guitar and indulged his passion for experimentation. 'Loser', the breakthrough single from his debut album 'Mellow Gold', was delivered in a thrillingly-haphazard way, banging out one repeated note on the keyboard with the butt of his microphone. 'Where it's at' saw Beck perform what could only be described as some form of 'robotic' dance to the crowd's appreciative cheers, as he and the audience began an infectious call-and-response routine.
This final section of the set was complete freeform experimentation, blending song after song into each other in sometimes barely recognisable guises. Beck was like the Duracell bunny, all wound up and bursting with energy, trying to cram in as many of his songs as he could. Any lesser artist would've found it hard to pull this off and keep the audience's attention but, as Beck hurtled from one melody to another, the breakneck momentum he had built up had everyone eagerly anticipating just what the hell was going to come next.
He finished up with a great version of Velvet Underground's 'Sunday morning', which he made his own. And then it was over. An exhausted-but-happy-looking Beck thanked the roaring crowd and was gone, leaving them almost as breathless as he was in his wake.
Mary Anne Kenny.