red lights

American Singer-Songwriter Emerges
from Unlikely Candidate

Pick-Staiger Hall
Evanston, IL
Aug. 9, 2002

Review by Tony Bonyata
File Photo by Phil Bonyata

It may have appeared as a reinvention of Beck, but it was really more of a return to his roots that made his recent performance last Friday evening at the tiny Northwestern University concert hall so mesmerizing.
Beck, better known for his groundbreaking use of cut-and-paste studio techniques, lo-fi productions, musical genre inbreeding and explosive live performances, left it all behind in favor of sitting quietly on a stage with hardly more than a few simple acoustic instruments. Shunning his alt-rock poster-boy persona, Beck instead emerged as a powerful American singer-songwriter with a captivating voice and knapsack full of songs to be reckoned with.
This may have seemed like a new chapter in his career, but it was actually these same type of songs that were some of his earliest musical inspirations. Rural songs from America's past from such artists as Hank Williams Sr., early Mississippi bluesman Skip James and material from folklorist Harry James' catalog were all intertwined within his own honest and simple compositions.
Even though casual fans of Beck-The Rock Star may have been let down with the omission of songs like "Loser," "Devil's Haircut," and "New Pollution," those that either really knew what originally inspired Beck or those that were simply able to appreciate beautifully constructed songs, stripped down to their most soul-baring element, were treated to a very special evening.
Talkative, good-humored and relaxed, Beck, clad in a dark jacket, jeans, red shoes and yellow socks, took time from the audience fielding song requests, questions and even a plea to sing "Happy Birthday" from a female in the audience, which he gladly obliged on piano. Despite the disheveled bird's nest atop his head, the singer let his hair down as he rambled from song to song like a hobo jumping train cars.
What he proved more than anything, though, was that lurking behind all the blips, bleeps and samples of his past, there was a world-class singer-songwriter longing to break free. And on this 19-city acoustic tour, that singer-songwriter was finally released.
Folkier songs from his past, such as "Hollow Log," "A-hole," "Sissyneck" as well as a wealth of more subdued acoustic material from his 1998 album Mutations Aside from his own material, though, Beck managed to squeeze in a few of his own requests, performing harrowing, dusty versions of Hank Williams Sr.'s "Lonesome Whistle," a creepy version of Skip James' "Devil Got My Woman" and even a fragile, heart-felt cover of John Lennon's "Love."
Although more than half of the show was performed by Beck alone, he was later accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Smokey Hormel (who's previously worked with Tom Waits and Cibo Matto). Hormel, along with Beck on banjo, added mandolin on the old folk song "Down By The Banks Of The Ohio," as well a stinging slide guitar to "Bottle Of Blues" and the Middle Eastern sounds of harmonium on a number from Beck's forthcoming album Sea Change. During another new number Hormel slowly slid a bow over the strings of his electric guitar creating ominous, ghostly howls behind Beck's dark melody.
Teasing his audience, Beck dialed in a Latin rhythm on his Roland beatbox and broke into the spicy "Tropicalia," before doing a few brief robotic dance steps that he's known for from previous live performances.
Seating himself behind an old beat-up upright piano Beck explained, "This is a $200 piano...and I'm gonna play a $200 song," before leading into the stark and beautiful "Lonesome Tears," also from Lost Cause. Judging from the wealth of new music that he performed from his upcoming album - introspective and reflective songs which hearken back to his more stripped down sounds from Mutations and even his early pre-Mellow Gold acoustic material, it sounds like Beck is chockfull of $200 songs that, in reality, are priceless.

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