DeVos Place, in downtown Grand Rapids, didn't know what hit it by the end of Saturday night's concert by alt-folk troubadour, Beck, and the bluesy psychedelia of Sean Lennon's The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. For a venue that is usually accustomed to hosting stand-up comedy and music of a gentler variety, it was surprising to see it show up on Beck's summer tour itinerary, but while there was no shortage of dancing and rocking out, a descent portion of the concert was also devoted to quieter material from Beck's latest LP, the excellent and critically-acclaimed Morning Phase.
The evening began with a tight 30-minute set from The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, led by rock-progeny, Sean Lennon, and his partner, Charlotte Kemp Muhl. It was clear the audience was not particularly familiar with the group or its music, but Lennon elicited a friendly mood that was both inviting and entertaining. The band's songs were somewhat dark in tone but featured flourishes of electric blues guitar from Lennon and some excellent vocal harmonies from four of the five other members of the group. The poppy moments were balanced by unexpected musical shifts and time changes that drew in the music geeks, and the group's light show complimented their songs very well.
After a lengthy 45-minute set break, Beck and his solid backing band finally took the stage to an enthusiastic and welcoming reception and tore into "Devils Haircut." The strobe lights and that unmistakably classic, crunchy guitar riff brought most of the audience to its feet and had them singing and dancing along. Beck danced as well, breaking out his usual James Brown-inspired moves during the up-tempo numbers. Even the casual concert-goer was in for a treat, as Beck continues to tour with his nearly all-star line-up of supporting players with whom he made and toured for several classic albums in the late 90s and early 00s, including Justin Meldal-Johnsen on bass, Joey Waronker on drums, and Smokey Hormel on guitar. Professional is a term that comes to mind to describe the performance, presentation, and execution of a wide-ranging variety of songs and styles throughout the concert. One set of songs created a party atmosphere, and the next set would bring the room to near-silence with its delicacy. The undisputable highlight was the generous dose of material from Beck's latest release which is mostly based in acoustic folk and country songs with his usual accents of electronics and strings. The acoustics in the theater at DeVos Place made it a perfect place to see and hear these songs performed.
Beck included a little bit of everything from his lengthy career and large bag of tricks. The oldest tracks performed were the alt-radio classic "Loser," celebrating its 21st birthday this year, and the blues-harmonica stomp, "One Foot in the Grave," originally from Beck's 1994 debut LP. Deep cuts from recent albums, such as "Soul of a Man" from 2008's Modern Guilt, and "Soldier Jane" from 2006's The Information satiated hardcore fans, and the inclusion of recognizable hits peppered in throughout the set, including "The New Pollution," "Blue Moon," and "Girl," kept the interest of casual fans in attendance. The band's encore brought the house down with a high-energy take on "Sexx Laws" and the Prince-like ballad, "Debra," both from 1999's Midnite Vultures, and the closing 10 minute jam on "Where It's At" featured a musical introduction of all members of the band, quotes from Queen, Sugar Hill Gang, and The Rolling Stones, and culminated with about 40 members of the front rows of the audience climbing onto the stage to sing and dance with Beck and the band. It was clear there was a bit more chaos than Beck expected when he invited people to come up, and he was quickly escorted from the stage as soon as he could communicate to the band that it was time to end the song. A scene like this is virtually unheard of in this particular venue, but in many ways, it is completely appropriate. Beck has always played by his own rules and done pretty much whatever he wants or doesn't want to do artistically and musically, and this example of jubilant irreverence, which some may look at more as gesture supporting freedom, was a great way to clarify his angle to any stuffy or uninitiated members of the audience. While Beck and his band may not have performed quite as long as they did a few weeks ago in Detroit, Saturday night's show in Grand Rapids had an energy and intensity all its own.
Beck's Set List:
Soul of a Man
The New Pollution
I Think I'm In Love/I Feel Love (Donna Summer)
Que Onda Guero
One Foot in the Grave
Heart is a Drum
Where It's At (make out city version + band intros)/Another One Bites the Dust (Queen)/Rapper's Delight (Sugar Hill Gang)/Miss You (The Rolling Stones)/Hollywood Freaks