COLUMBUS, Ohio — Talk about a hard act to follow.
What’s a fella to do when the opening act sprints out of the gate with five huge disco balls spinning, a singer wielding a smoke machine like a flame thrower, two dozen dancers dressed in a rainbow assortment of animal costumes and shaking flashlights, confetti showers, oversized bouncing eyeball balloons, and a huge movie screen showing films of Japanese school girls blasting each other to bits with automatic weapons?
That was the dilemma facing Beck on the seventh night of his joint U.S. tour with Oklahoma psychedelic rock pranksters the Flaming Lips. The show, at Ohio State University’s plush Mershon Auditorium, was a lesson in contrasts, with Beck trying to balance the serious and silly, and the Lips, as usual, going full-tilt gonzo.
Though his nearly two-hour set relied heavily on the somber material from his recent acoustic heartbreak album, Sea Change, Beck, backed by the Lips, did his best to kick out the jams amidst the lyrical tears.
Dressed in a flouncy orange T-shirt and dark blue jeans, Beck ambled into the spotlight to begin his portion of the show with a career-spanning set of solo acoustic songs.
The contrast between the stream-of-consciousness absurdity of his earlier work and the stark, confessional quality of the new album was immediate. While “Lazy Flies,” from 1998′s Mutations, has the skin of a robot vibrating with pleasure, the new, irony-free “Guess I’m Doing Fine” relied on clear-eyed lyrics about leaving the past behind, delivered in a traditional singer/songwriter style.
Though he’s still a bit too scruffy to slip into James Taylor land, Beck certainly skirted the edge of sensitive ponytail guy territory just two songs into the show. Even he had to laugh during an earnest version of “A–hole,” from his 1994 acoustic blues album, One Foot in the Grave, cracking up every time he sang the refrain.
An a cappella, foot-stomping, harmonica-blowing take on that album’s title track helped break the weepy spell, if only for a minute.
By the time he got to the night’s sixth song, “The Golden Age,” the Lips joined in from behind a black screen, which dropped as the gang kicked into a loungey version of “Tropicalia.”
Given the sad-sack quality of the new material, Beck did his best to crank things up at least every other song, breaking into vocoder robot vocals and doing some Elvis-inspired locking and popping for the electrofied “Get Real Paid.” But, uncorking his seldom-played breakthrough hit, “Loser,” Beck’s heart didn’t seem into it, as he fell behind the beat and had trouble getting his flow going.
It was one of the few low points in an evening in which Beck proved worthy of the accolades Sea Change has drawn, exploring a wide breadth of styles and moods while delivering on the earnest new material. Even if he didn’t match Lips leader Wayne Coyne’s boundless enthusiasm — when not playing keyboards or guitar, Coyne served as Beck’s personal disco lighting technician and relentless cheerleader — Beck brought the crowd to its feet with his intensity.
With candy-colored Rorschach-like abstract paintings scrolling by on a screen, he mixed bubbling Joy Division gloom with Nick Drake moodiness on “Lonesome Tears,” which built to a noisy crescendo worthy of, well, the Flaming Lips. Cracking a whip and doing the splits, Beck shimmied from one side of the stage to the other during “The New Pollution,” taking things right back down with a leisurely, country-rockin’ “Pay No Mind (Snoozer).”
Sitting alone on the floor playing a wheezing harmonium, Beck brought a hushed chill over the auditorium with a Delta blues-meets-Qawwali performance of “Nobody’s Fault But My Own,” reimagined as a spare solo dirge. The Middle Eastern flavor continued through to “Sunday Sun,” performed as a folky raga drone and “Round the Bend,” a spooky acoustic ballad during which Coyne ominously swung an orange light in circles above Beck’s head.
Shaking off the doldrums, the group plowed the night to a raucous ending with a ragged run through “Where It’s At,” a rocked-up Vegas lounge rendition of “Paper Tiger” — during which Beck emerged as a hip, young lounge singer in his black blazer and skull-and-crossbones T-shirt — and the new-wave punk blitz “Minus.”
Dressed in a white jumpsuit strung with Christmas lights, Beck finally matched Coyne’s energy and absurdity during the show-closing Devo soul-revue version of “Devil’s Haircut.”
Beck may have come off as the more sober antidote to his elder statesmen’s unbridled zeal, but the pairing proved inspired and unpredictable, which is exactly what people have come to expect from both artists.
With their army of fans dressed as pink porpoise, blue beastie and tiger-striped plushies shimmying on the edges of the stage, the Lips opened the show with a seven-song, half-hour set that mixed more recent songs like “Race for the Prize,” “Fight Test” and “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1″ with their signature fluke hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly.” Coyne was a gray-haired indie-rock instigator throughout, pumping his fist in the air during the entire set and winning over an audience that seemed at first stunned, then scared and confused and finally, elated.
Beck’s Set List:
- “Lazy Flies”
- “Guess I’m Doing Fine”
- “One Foot in the Grave”
- “Hollow Log”
- “The Golden Age”
- “Lord Only Knows”
- “Get Real Paid”
- “Cold Brains”
- “It’s All in Your Mind”
- “We Live Again”
- “Lonesome Tears”
- “The New Pollution”
- “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)”
- “Nobody’s Fault But My Own”
- “Sunday Sun”
- “Round the Bend”
- “Lost Cause”
- “Where It’s At”
- “Paper Tiger” (encore)
- “Minus” (encore)
- “Devil’s Haircut” (encore)
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.