BOSTON Acclaimed singer/songwriter Beth Orton, who opened for Beck on Saturday at the Orpheum, was separated from the headliner by more than just the backdrop that hid his neon-colored stage set while she played.
Beck would soon be funking, rocking and rolling at the second of his two Boston shows. But Orton, who took over the tour's opening slot from honky-tonk singer Hank Williams III on Feb. 6, played tranquil folk music buoyed by her acrobatic, fluttering vocal style and just a bit of electronic sound.
She was backed by a three-piece band, which included Soul Coughing's Sebastian Steinberg on upright bass, as she floated through tracks from her two albums, Trailer Park (1997) and Central Reservation (1999). Some in the jam-packed crowd of 1,800 seemed more interested in bassist Steinberg than in Orton. At several points, cries of "Do 'Super Bon Bon!' " echoed through the theater, referring to a Soul Coughing song.
While the radio hits such as "She Cries Your Name" and "Stolen Car" (RealAudio excerpt) were well received, the rest of Orton's songs didn't appear to energize the crowd. Before breathing into "Sweetest Decline," the lanky, short-haired chanteuse even begged for some crowd noise, which was politely provided.
Upon Beck's entrance, the mood changed quickly. The plain backdrop rose to reveal a colorful stage set, which, under various lighting schemes, looked either like a plastic tropical paradise or a giant inflatable disco. Fans immediately stood up, causing the second-tier balcony to sway up and down. The trembling seemed to worry some fans, who immediately sat down and held on to their seats.
"The balcony was literally moving up and down a lot," Rebecca Kaiser, 24, of Malden, Mass., said. "I mean, you could see the whole structure, like, shaking. When was the last time you were at a show where the crowd was so pumped that the whole building literally moved?"
Dressed in black, skin-tight bell-bottom pants and a matching, long-tailed shirt, Beck joined a cast of 10 musicians. They included a three-piece brass section, two backup singers, keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr. (who wore a fluorescent-colored shirt and a Superman cape). Also performing were bassist Justin Meldal-Johnson, guitarist Lyle Workman, drummer Victor Indrizzo and turntablist DJ Swamp.
Opening with "Novacane," from the 1996 album Odelay, and "Mixed Bizness" (RealAudio excerpt), from Midnite Vultures (1999), Beck pointed to his band and let everyone know, "This here is my unit."
For the next hour and a half, the unit was a well-oiled machine. It pumped out gallons of R&B-influenced sound, from the Prince-like ballad "Debra" (RealAudio excerpt), to the soul-drenched Midnite Vultures single "Sexx Laws" (RealAudio excerpt), to such relative obscurities as the harmonica-heavy "One Foot in the Grave."
During "Debra," the hip-hop friendly Beck even freestyled, offering a tongue-in-cheek verse on dating.
"I'll come get you, yeah yeah," Beck rapped. "I'll come pick you up in my Honda Civic. I just got the hydraulics installed last week. ... The sh--'s bouncing up, up and down, up and down."
As the island-heavy "Jackass" faded, Beck stood alone onstage, with a harmonica and an acoustic guitar. "We're going to bring it down for a while," he said.
"This is weird for me," the scrawny singer said. "For the better part of the last decade, this is when people would be moshing. ... It used to make me laugh."
Before Beck returned for an encore, DJ Swamp took the stage alone, treating the crowd to a 15-minute lesson in turntabling. Bits of electronica and Motown vinyl made the mix, with an impromptu scratch session that morphed blips and grooves of house music into the chords of such guitar-rock anthems as Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger."
Beck then closed the show with the Odelay songs "Devils Haircut" and "Minus," with the frontman and his band smashing their instruments and tearing into the space-aged stage props. Strobes popped on and off, and a set of neon lights glowed above the stage, creating an eerie image of new-wave chaos.
"This was like a crazy Vegas show, where every song was like the encore," Caroline Pearson, 23, of Somerville, Mass., said. "Considering I wasn't familiar with half of the songs, I was still thoroughly entertained."