Sublime moments among dancing fools

Beck was at his best alone, with an off-key guitar

Frederic Hanson

The man sitting next to me thinks Beck should have a few more laser beams shooting across the crowd. He thinks this because he saw Billy Idol last night. Billy Idol – now that’s a show, he explains. This man looks like a cheap Miami gigolo in his cut-off shirt and orangutan skin.

He definitely has a point.

For all the gimmicks Beck pulled out during this show, the first of a 12-date tour, it still needed something more.

Things got off to a great start at the nearly sold-out Roy Wilkins Auditorium. The junk-yard symphony of Beck and his backing septet shined in the first few minutes. “Black Tambourine,” “Devil’s Haircut,” and “Girl” packed the kind of garage-prophet punch we wanted to hear.

The noise was intense and flanked by a big wall of sound ñ drums, keyboards, basses, guitars, two turntables and a microphone. Beck spit lyrical genius in our faces and we lapped it up graciously.

But after a while, the show really could have used a few lasers. Or a rotating drum cage with snakes and half-naked Amazon women and mechanical piranhas spewing fireballs.

The initially vicious sound became dull over an hour and a half. A guy dressed like a NASA flight surgeon danced around onstage like Beck was supposed to. He was ironic.

Ten years ago, in the glorious ’90s, it would’ve been more entertaining. It might have seemed cool and inventive. In fact, when Beck used to do it – it was. But tonight, it seemed tired.

Dressed a little like a Van Morrison – minus the three-hundred pounds – Beck spent most of the evening going through the motions. He played the hits – “Loser,” “New Pollution” and “Lost Cause,” among others – and played them pretty well.

He opted for picture-perfect album renditions of most songs. Maybe that’s why he brought such a considerable entourage. It seemed as though he was a little afraid of putting himself completely out there – like he needed this musical mafia to have his back in case something should go wrong.

But really, when solo, the futuristic troubadour is at his most pristine.

His lonely “Sea Change” medley toward the end of the show was gorgeous. Even though he deemed it to be “half-assed” because of tuning problems, it was the highlight of the evening. It was just a guitar and a voice and some beautifully honest music – mistakes and all.

Though the show did not live up to optimistic and somewhat nostalgic expectations – though there were no lasers or washed-up, blond British rockers – it still proved that when he wants to be, Beck is still a loser and, without any doubt, still where it’s at.