ANN ARBOR, Michigan — About an hour into Beck's headlining show at the Michigan Theater Sunday, he mused that he's not very good at introductions. He played a backbeat to ease his tension, and told the audience to welcome a special guest — Ghostface Killah from the Wu-Tang Clan.
But Ghost was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the White Stripes' Jack White (wearing black!) strolled onstage, and was welcomed with a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd of college kids and beatniks.
White dropped his indie rock facade and vamped it up for the crowd, performing a sultry version of actress Barbara Feldon's "99," an ode to her character on "Get Smart." White sat in a chair with legs crossed looking like Michelle Pfeiffer's character in "The Fabulous Baker Boys."
"Agent 99, she made a record once too. That was a song about her from her record," Beck said while patting White on the back.
White's ego was soon shattered when, after he and Beck completed two songs — Beck's "Cold Brains" and Robert Johnson's "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" — an audience member yelled, "Who was that?" Beck repeated playfully, "Ghostface Killah from the Wu-Tang Clan and I'm Big Baby Jesus." Beck's two-hour acoustic performance had a playful vibe throughout. He filled the show with sly remarks, showing a different side to his flashy, leisure-suit-wearing self. The concert was a free-for-all, with fans shouting out names of songs in hopes that Beck would perform them. It served as an introduction to Sea Change, his new album due to hit stores September 24, according to Interscope Records.
Sporting jeans, a white button-down shirt, Converse sneakers, disheveled hair and rosy red cheeks, Beck cracked jokes the minute he hit the stage, which looked like an unkempt music classroom. He improvised songs about the year 1972, car alarms going off behind the theater and the vast collection of instruments onstage.
He and guitarist Smokey Hormel performed several songs Beck said they didn't rehearse ahead of time. After wrapping up one such track, "Rowboat," Beck looked at the audience and shrugged his shoulders as if he was unsure of the outcome.
Beck was jovial, frequently telling stories in between songs. He seemed appreciative that he was able to play album tracks, instead of just the popular songs.
"You write a song 10 years ago and nobody wanted to hear it. Now, 10 years later, they want to hear it. I don't even know how it goes," Beck said about "Dead Melodies" after an audience member requested it.
Beck dabbled in cover songs at the sold-out performance, at one point singing a verse from Prince's "Raspberry Beret." The crowd clapped to the beat as Beck said, "It's a song by the purple one, but I like to say it is going out to the other purple one. Just visualize that I'm singing it to Barney."
Beck's set excluded most of his electronic and hip-hop influenced songs such as "Beercan," "Loser" and "Soul Suckin' Jerk." But there was a good reason.
"I've been trying to figure out how to do the hip-hop thing live. I've been studying LL Cool J's 'Unplugged' for 15 hours straight. I have not figured (it out). It'll come to me."
He sat down at the piano for "Sissyneck," but continually broke out in laughter as he attempted to play.
"This (sounds like) 'Hill Street Blues' or 'Hill Street Delta Blues,' " he said with a laugh. The giddiness followed him and his guitarist throughout the song. Several times he had to stop to try to compose himself, and once even broke into the '80s dance the robot.
He and Hormel attempted to play a new song from Sea Change, but it fell flat.
"We haven't played it before, but hopefully it goes right," Beck said. A few minutes later he added with a laugh, "OK, it didn't go well." When a fan responded with "You can do it!" Beck laughed so hard he lost his breath.
While there were 10 guitars and three keyboards onstage already, Beck continued to pull out more instruments, including a plastic child's guitar that played hip-hop samples whenever a button on it was pushed.
"I went to Toys R Us, word," he said. "I wonder if Grandmaster Flash was thinking that one day he'll go to Toys R Us and find that thing. It's kind of a nightmare."
The performance had its quiet moments. Fans subtly asked others to tone down their conversation as Beck performed "a weeper," "Lonesome Tears," from Sea Change. It was one of the most powerful moments of the show. The pain in his voice emanated through the historical theater trimmed in gold.
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