Concert Review: Beck @ Prospect Park Bandshell, Brooklyn, NY – August 4, 2013

I think one of the greatest feelings after seeing a concert is when you leave knowing that whatever expectations you had were exceeded. I usually go into a show with a certain level of excitement and some assumption of what I’m going to see, whether it is based on previous experiences or from what I’ve heard or read. I’ve been lucky enough that most shows that I’ve been to have at least met my expectations, but I’m always exhilarated when I leave knowing that I a better experienced than I ever imagined. This is how I felt after I left Beck‘s recent concert in Brooklyn.

Now I had seen Beck before, but my previous experience left me wanting more. Let me explain. It was 1998, and Beck was touring with Ben Folds Five as one of his openers, along with Elliott Smith. Being the big Ben Folds Five fan that you know I am, I wanted to go see them. My younger brother, Sam, was (and still is) a big Beck fan, so it was an easyBeck-Third-Man-Records decision for my dad to get tickets to the show. At the time, I wasn’t really into Beck, but I liked most of his stuff, especially off of Odelay, and knew of his reputation for putting on a great show, so it just added to my overall excitement for the show. The concert was at Jones Beach Ampitheater which is about 2 hours away from where I grew up, and it was on a school night. Adding to this was the fact that I had a biology practical the following day, of which I did almost no studying for. So when Beck started around an hour and a half after Ben Folds Five finished (did I mention it was drizzling the whole night?), I knew we would not be staying for the whole show. We left about 45 minutes into Beck’s set. However, what we saw was fantastic, and just made me hope that I would be able to see Beck in concert again. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get the chance, though my brother did during The Information tour, which he said was one of the best shows he’s ever seen (I mean they had marionettes and set pieces). So when I saw that Beck was going to be playing a show in Brooklyn with a full electric band (something he has not been doing much of lately), I jumped at the opportunity.

Going into the evening, I tried to temper my expectations, due to the fact that there were a lot of unknown variables. Neither my brother (who came with me) nor I had been to the venue before, so we had no idea what the setup would be or what the sound would be like. We also had no idea who would be playing in his band, and were wondering what songs he was going to play. We got to the venue a little bit after 6pm, and were able to find a spot just in front of the seated area (for VIPs only) directly in front of the sound board, which was dead center of the stage. The concrete GA area is on a slope which made it easy for us to see the stage, even with people in front of us. Around 7pm, the opening act, Adam Green and Binki Shapiro, came on and put on a nice set, full of alt-country/folk and fun stage antics.

As we waited for Beck to come on, my brother and I mused about who would be playing with him. Sam knew that Beck’s longtime bassist and musical director, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, was not going to be at the show, which was a disappointment to both of us. From one of my conversations with Bleu during our recording session, I knew that Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. was going to be playing keyboards. I hoped that Joey Waronker was going to be playing drums, and based on the funky left-handed set, it seemed he would be playing (which he did). The question now was, who would be playing guitar and bass? A little after 8pm the band came out. I was surprised and excited to see that the first person out on stage and heading to play bass was Jason Falkner (I’m a big fan of his solo material). As expected, Waronker and Manning both came out on stage, and the mystery man of the evening turned out to be guitarist Smokey Hormel. Then the band started playing and the last lingering question of the evening was answered.

As Beck and his band opened in blistering fashion with “Devil’s Haircut,” “Black Tambourine,” and “Soul of a Man,” I knew we were going to be in for one helluva night. I turned my brother and told him that we had IMG_0342already gotten our admission’s worth for the night. While it was partly due to the fact that he played those songs, it was also attributed to Beck’s energy and his band’s cohesiveness musically. Sure his band was made of veteran musicians, and yes they had already played a few shows in previous days, but the fact that they sounded like a band that had been playing together for years is what got me. (Beck later stated that this was the band that played on the Sea Change tour and was his “dream band.”)

After going solo on “One Foot in the Grave,” his band came back out and continued to tear things up, running through an incredible mix of songs that essentially covered Beck’s career. The crowd went crazy when they started playing Soft Cell‘s version of “Tainted Love,” which after a verse went into “Modern Guilt” (though Beck messed up and called a redo during the transition). “Think I’m in Love” was given a cover add-on as well, having Donna Summer‘s “I Feel Love” tacked on as an outro. After the upbeat and dancy “Gamma Ray,” Beck began playing the memorable slide guitar opening to “Loser,” as the crowd erupted with ecstasy. Almost everyone was dancing and singing along, and the concert truly became a musical party. After another trio of danceable songs (“Hotwax,” “Que Ondo Guero,” and “Girl“), Beck and the band went into a few ethereal tunes, that were absolutely gorgeous sounding. While “Soldier Jane” sounded like it came right off of the record, “Chemtrails” was simply epic, thanks in part to Joey Waronker’s pounding, yet tasteful drumming.

Beck then shed his electric guitar for an acoustic and told the crowd that he was going to be playing a few songs off of Sea Change. After settling down after an ecstatic applause, the crowd was treated to fantastic versions of “The Golden Age” and “Lost Cause.” Admittedly, I have never really given Sea Change much of a proper listen, but in the middle of “Lost Cause” I turned to my brother and told him that I needed to listen to the album more.

After performing his cover of The Korgis‘ “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime,” which he recorded for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Beck took out a copy of his most recent “album,” Song Reader, which is actually a book of sheet music. Beck explained how in the past he had looked at the transcriptions of his songs into music books and had felt sorry for whoever had to transcribe his distorted, backward, compressed vocal screams into piano notes. So, he decided to write and arrange simple songs that could be easily put into sheet music, and do it the old-fashioned way, allowing people to interpret the song however they wanted. He then performed two songs from the songbook, “Just Noise” and “Heaven’s Ladder.” Just to clarify, there is no official recordings of these songs, so for me, it was the first time I had ever heard these songs. And yes, they were good.

After running through “Fourteen Rivers Fourteen Floods,” Beck ended the set with a barnstorming version of “Sissyneck.” During the breakdown in the song, Waronker slightly IMG_0346changed his beat, and Beck went around his band asking if they knew what it was. The crowd seemed to know, but Hormel and Manning feigned ignorance, before Falkner said he knew what it was, and broke into the infamous bassline of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” Beck asked, “Can we do this?” and the crowd answered with a massive cheer, as Beck started to imitate the King of Pop’s dance moves, before jumping into the first verse. Falkner took the lead on the bridge, showing his own vocal prowess, before everyone sang the chorus together. The band then kicked it back into “Sissyneck” to end the set, leaving the stage to a massive applause.

A few minutes later, the group came out, and Beck said they were going to “play something loud.” The band then launched into the heavy “E-Pro” which kept the high energy going and the crowd rocking. The night ended with an extended version of “Where It’s At,” in which Beck did an (assumingly) improv monologue. The band responded appropriately to his actions, adding in little riffs and fills. After telling the crowd he wanted to take things “higher,” Beck counted the band back in and totally brought the house down. Beck played off the crowd’s energy, having them do call and responses, and then having both Hormel and Falkner do a coordinated slide, bringing back memories of that show in 1998, before ending the song and the show.

This show was one of the best that I’ve been to in the last few years, and possibly ever. Everything seemed to be perfect. The weather, crowd, and sound were all great, as was Beck and his band. But more than just sounding great on stage, Beck and his band seemed to genuinely be having a damned good time. Not only were they fooling around and getting into the music, the band seemed to have a looseness and synergy to it, even though they had only really been playing for less than a week together. I really can’t say much more than it was just simply a fantastic show and it greatly exceeded my expectations (though I would’ve loved to have heard a tune from Midnight Vultures, but whatever).

I just hope it won’t be another 15 years before I see Beck again.


Setlist
Devil’s Haircut – Odelay
Black Tambourine – Guero
Soul of a Man – Modern Guilt
One Foot in the Grave – Stereopathic Soulmanure
Modern Guilt (w/Tainted Love intro) – Modern Guilt
Think I’m in Love (w/I Feel Love outro) – The Information
Gamma Ray – Modern Guilt
Loser – Mellow Gold
Hotwax – Odelay
Que Ondo Guero – Guero
Girl – Guero
Soldier Jane – The Information
Chemtrails – Modern Guilt
The Golden Age – Sea Change
Lost Cause – Sea Change
Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (soundtrack)
Just Noise – Song Reader
Heaven’s Ladder – Song Reader
Fourteen Rivers Fourteen Floods – One Foot in the Grave
Sissyneck (w/Billie Jean interlude) – Odelay
Encore:
E-Pro – Guero
Where It’s At – Odelay

Brendan Benson – What Kind of World

It still boggles my mind that as big as The Raconteurs were, many people have no clue who Brendan Benson is (or The Greenhornes for that matter). When most people think of The Raconteurs they think of Jack White, and that’s pretty much it. Which is a shame because not only did Brendan Benson co-front the group with White, he co-wrote every original song the group performed. And what’s even a bigger shame is that a lot of people are missing out on some absolutely great music that Benson has put out in his solo work. His newest album, What Kind of World, is another shining example of his power pop songwriting prowess.

Unlike his earlier albums, particularly Lapalco and The Alternative to Love, the material on What Kind of World didn’t immediately grab me. However, since it came out last week, I have given the album many listens and it has really grown on me. So much so, that I’ve pretty much been listening to it non-stop. What’s different about this album compared to his previous work is that you can definitely hear the influence of other artists and bands. This may seem like a negative, but for me it’s made the album that much more enjoyable, because Benson is album to take familiar musical styles and still come up with an original sound.

There are a handful of tracks that really remind me of certain artists. The most obvious example to me is “No One Else but You,” sounding like a mash-up of Band on the Run-era Paul McCartney and All Things Must Pass-era George Harrison, with the latter being extremely evident. I mean, the refrain of this song could’ve been lifted from All Things Must Pass, with a wall-of-sound horn section, a Harrison-esque slide guitar, and a chorus of voices singing “No one else but you!” over and over again at the end of the song. The verses, especially the second, seem to have been plucked from McCartney’s mini-epic “Band on the Run,” having a calm, almost barren, feel that totally clashes with the feel of the chorus. Still, the fact that he is able to combine these two styles together and come out with a very quality (and catchy) song is a testament to how well Benson understands how to write music.

Since he recently toured with them, it’s not surprising that there is at least one song that sounds like The Posies. “Thru the Ceiling,” is that song, and has John Auer and Ken Stringfellow’s fingerprints all over it, feeling like it was extracted from their 1993 release, Frosting on the Beater. I actually would not be surprised if the two actually played on the recording (they are listed in the liner notes as having played on the album, but not listed for any specific songs). “Happy Most of the Time,” is another song that has echoes other another artist, this time it’s Jason Falkner, who worked with Benson on his first album, One Mississippi. Though Benson has always kept Falkner’s influence close to the vest, this track is incredibly reminiscent of Falkner’s early solo work.

Still, most of the album is pure Brendan Benson, which means lots of well-crafted power pop laden with super-catchy hooks. The opening title track, “What Kind of World,” is a prime example of this. Though it begins on a semi-dark note through the first verse, the song kicks into gear once the chorus starts, and it doesn’t look back. The chorus is beyond catchy (having been in my head for the past three days now), and the second verse is everything a power pop fan should love about the genre, with crunchy guitars and some vintage “woo-woo-woo’s” in the background vocals. “Light of Day” is another driving power pop track, but it’s the bridge that sticks out in this song. Flowing seamlessly out of the second chorus, the bridge bursts out of the song with soaring background vocals that are both beautiful and kickass at the same time. It only lasts 15 seconds, but it makes the song.

Here in the Deadlights” and “Come On” are both vintage Brendan Benson, harking back to both One Mississippi and Lapalco. Both are energetic and filled with driving distorted guitars, and multi-layered vocals, two things that Benson is fantastic at creating. “Met Your Match,” is just as energetic as those two tracks, but teeters on the realm of being pop-punk. If not for Benson’s incessantly melodic voice and the background “Oh, oh, oh’s” during the chorus, this song could easily fit into a Green Day or Blink-182 set, or at the very least Jimmy Eat World.

Brendan Benson can also write some great pop ballads as well. “Bad for Me,” the second track on the album, sounds like it could be part of a rock opera. It’s emotional, well written and arranged, and soars during the choruses. I can easily see this being the moment when a protagonist loses his love and things are going all wrong, so he stands in the rain and sings his heart out. Yea, that’s how well produced this song is.

The most interesting and endearing song on the album is its finale, “On the Fence,” which features (and was co-written by) Ashley Monroe.  Sounding like a barroom honk-tonk, the song is just plain fun. The lyrics speak of simplistic romance,  which is amplified with the presence of Monroe’s stunningly beautiful voice, while the melody and backbeat make you want to sway back and forth clapping your hands on the 2 and 4. It’s a show closer, and though it may seem out of place in the context of the album, it’s still a great way to end an album, because it leaves the listener with a smile on their face and joyful music in their ears.

Ever since I first heard one of his songs, I knew Brendan Benson could write great music, but I will honestly say I that I was a bit worried after his last release, My Old, Familiar Friend; it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t nearly as good as his other material. What Kind of World has quelled any fear I had about his songwriting. The album is damn good, and there are some absolutely fantastic musical moments within. I can never get enough of good power pop, and this album is filled with it. Maybe that’s why I can’t stop listening to this album.