NEW YORK — When you consider that he once played a Benihana chef in a music video (the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Flavor”) and has actress Christina Ricci guest on his new album as a sushi waitress, it’s pretty clear that Beck Hansen is well-versed in the ways of the Japanese food-service industry. Which is probably why he appeared to be so at home amidst the paper lanterns and tatami mats at the swanky Hiro club on Friday night: He was in his element.
But his laconic, ironic performance wasn’t entirely due to the decor; he was also taking the stage before a sold-out crowd of his most rabid fans, performing material from his just-released album, Guero. The show was a semi-secret, with tickets having gone on sale the prior afternoon — and selling out in less than 30 minutes — and the crowd was amped from the minute Beck strode onstage, flipped his blond locks, and launched headlong into a funked-out version of “Black Tambourine.”
His five-piece band — which now includes a multi-tasking keyboardist/harmonica player and a dude whose sole purpose appeared to be banging a garbage can and busting out Mr. Roboto dance moves — provided “Tambourine” with enough banging low-end to match the album version’s intensity. And lo and behold, Beck dusted off his Odelay-era Electric Slide for the night, gliding from one side of the stage to the other, shaking a tambourine at his hip.
Speaking of Odelay, Beck next charged into a version of that album’s opening track, “Devil’s Haircut,” which was greeted with thunderous applause and even got some of the assembled VIPs (Daryl Hannah, Fab Moretti and, um, Jake Fogelnest) up out of their seats. After the discordant final notes had faded out, Beck immediately began jamming the opening notes of “Scarecrow,” and his band followed suit, opening the song up to include a funky drum riff and an honest-to-goodness bass solo.
Beck announced that it was time for “some new sh–,” and wheeled out a CD-J/mixer (proclaiming himself to be “DJ Foodcourt” in the process) to provide some squiggles and scratches to a tune called “We Dance Alone.” The song’s rambling, countrified edges crashed headlong into Beck’s smooth loverman shtick — last seen on Midnite Vultures’ album-closing “Debra” — as he rapped with a pseudo-lisp and then crooned the hook (“It’s getting darker/ We dance alone this way.”)
Two Guero tracks were next — the bumping, loc-ed out “Qué Onda Guero” (which Beck dedicated to “true gueros” like Michael Bolton and John Tesh) and the jangly “Girl” — both of which caused hands to be thrown in the air and hips to shake, and then two brand-new songs, a banging number called “Knock You Out” and a mellow, evening-closer-of-a-tune called “Remain in Dark.” Then there was a truly funky version of “Nicotine & Gravy,” which slowed the beat down a step and allowed Beck and his band to stretch their legs a bit.
After heating the crowd up, Beck cooled things off with the somber “Broken Drum,” and then continued the evening’s schizophrenic vibe by firing off two successive jams: a chopped-up version of “Hell Yes” (complete with that aforementioned Christina Ricci sample) and the certified banger “Where It’s At,” which had the whole joint going bananas. Beck disappeared offstage as the crowd chanted his name and begged for an encore. And after a few tense minutes, he obliged, bringing the band back for a truly epic version of “Get Real Paid,” complete with vocoder-vocals (“We like the boys with the bulletproof vests”), and Beck scratching his fingers down to the bone. Then, after a solid seven minutes, the whole thing collapsed into a wave of electronic bleeps and guitar reverb, and that was that.
And the fans left happy, with glazed smiles on their faces. It was classic Beck — sappy, over-the-top, goofy-to-the-max — the way he ought to be. The somber, shoe-gazing moments were few and far between, and partying was clearly the priority. It was an all-over-the-place, sloppy, funky, funny performance, and it left Hiro’s paper lanterns swinging and tattered in the aftermath.
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