THIS BEAT IS CORRECT
The impending shift of North Carolina’s film industry from verdant economic incubator to political martyr presents a grim forecast for the more tangible columns on a balance sheet, but there’s at least one intangible asset that could also be deemed unrecoverable. It’s safe to say there won’t be another chance to spend a Saturday night in Asheville as a part of a sold-out audience with Charlie Day, Kristen Wiig, Owen Wilson and Mary Elizabeth Ellis drinking in Beck’s brilliantly wry stagecraft.
It wasn’t mere happenstance that the alt-rock polymath’s audience at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium was only slightly more star-studded than the stage where he worked. Production of “Loomis Fargo”, a film based on the 1997 Charlotte bank heist, was in full swing down the road in Old Fort and most of its top-billed cast (“It’s Always Sunny” star Day isn’t in it, but he is Ellis’s husband) fall right into the Gen-X subset that were most vulnerable to Beck’s Dadaist disdain for the putative systems of folk music.
It’s not exactly difficult to draw a linear connection between the middle-finger-flaunting, stoned anti-folk on Mellow Gold and the aberrant hilarity of “It’s Always Sunny” (in which Ellis plays the Waitress). Beyond the pure infectiousness of “Loser”, there was an element of “getting it” to Mellow Gold and the four albums that would follow that’s common to black comedy. In 2014, that Beck effect manifested in the form of thirty-something dads in the audience holding their dozing seven-year-olds and shrieking along with Beck’s dreamy and oh-so unsexy falsetto on “Debra”. To hell with a babysitter; it’s time these kids saw where we came from.
Beck being back on the road wasn’t an entirely nostalgic experiment, but it did feel like old times. His airtight backing band included his longtime musical director Justin Meldal-Johnsen (also of Nine Inch Nails and Air) on bass, Jellyfish founder Roger Joseph Manning, Jr., guitarists Jason Falkner and Smokey Hormel, and drummer Joey Waronker of Atoms for Peace and R.E.M. They’re all sought-after session players who helped flesh out the late ’90s/early 2000s studio experiments that became Beck’s defining oeuvre, and they just as famously were fired from the road following the recording of Sea Change. (Yes that) Sean Lennon served as show opener, auxiliary percussion, and bestower of the James Brown cape after the rapturous high point of “Debra” but he never got beyond being a bit of a novelty.
A lot has certainly changed since this core group was reunited for shows in late 2012, however. His latest record, the remarkably subdued Morning Phase, was the first record to feature that entire unit on the album and its ensuing tour, and Saturday night’s performance was as crisply formal as could be expected of a group this practiced. By the time his Asheville date rolled around, it was barely a secret that he was playing around with Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” or that he was going to tuck in a sweet “Billie Jean” interlude, but they both flowed forth so seamlessly that their respective syntheses with “I Think I’m In Love” and “Sissyneck” felt just as natural as Waronker’s drums and MIDI beat brews.
Beck’s formalism could have been construed as somewhat of a crutch early on with openers “Devil’s Haircut” and “Black Tambourine”; the show’s momentum was weighted heavily to either side of the set list so as not to upset the fragile cuts in the middle from Sea Change and Morning Phase. Later, it was a punch line.
“Can we do something,” he asked before dropping what be the earth-quaking sing-along “Loser”. “Can we fax over a formal request, on letterhead, to the city of Asheville?” If he thought the noise in the room might have been in violation of city ordinances, he properly covered the stage in crime scene tape following set-closer “E-pro”. His next appeal went to the audience itself, seeking permission to break from his covenant with his fans for an alternate telling of one of the night’s best tracks. Beck’s catalog of remixed and reimagined tracks is deep enough to keep new fans busy interminably, but the “Ghettochip Malfunction” remix of “Hell Yes” and its Gameboy beats might be its most fully realized and satisfying version to longtime fans. Really, he could have performed Breaks and Beats in its entirety and no one would have minded. His beat is that correct. !