Beck is an artist that has surpassed any and all expectations placed on him. Starting auspiciously with an explosive hit in the form of indie-folk-rap mega hit “Loser,” he incisively chopped up every genre imaginable, reinventing his sound with every progressive release. Along with Radiohead, he quickly attained a paragon status, managing to eschew both the limitations of conventional style, as well as any need to be concerned with protecting his “sound.” Now, almost twenty years from the point that the U.S.A. first became aware of him, he’s taken another courageous leap forward. Having almost a year ago released his massive Song Reader book, he has now plunged head first into encouraging an eager world of performers to cover his content.
Those obsessed with video sites YouTube and Vimeo will know that there has been a rising trend with the growth of those sites of professional and amateur musicians alike covering their favorite songs and proudly sharing then with the world. The open notation/arrangement of the Song Reader project—coupled with the fact that to date Beck has not released any music showing how he would play these songs—finds him openly encouraging anyone interested to put their spin on it. To boot, Beck’s Song Reader web site openly encourages and provides a forum for this social sharing. Earlier this year, we saw Beck speak about the project along with a few chosen performers covering the songs, but he opted not to perform anything himself that night. Tonight, at the prestigious Walt Disney Concert Hall, Beck and his father David Campbell put forth the best possible representation of the project with a slew of high-profile guests and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
The night began with actor/singer/Tenacious D member Jack Black humorously stripping off a quasi-suit to reveal his true ensemble: what appeared to be a wolf’s eyes t-shirt and boxer shorts. After a few humorous quips, Black gave the stage over to conductor David Campbell, the orchestra, Beck keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., Merry Clayton, and Fred Martin & The Levite Camp for a rising gospel-infused take on “Eyes That Say ‘I Love You’.” Impressive to note, that on this, and several other songs played during the show, Manning was at the far back of the concert hall playing the venue’s gargantuan pipe organ. The night was divided between the different guest singers and numerous artists from a variety of mediums giving short spoken word speeches on the meaning of music. There was little connecting them to the thread of the project beyond the joy of music, but Josh Kun’s words at the beginning explaining his role in the Songs in the Key of Los Angeles: Sheet Music from the Collection of the Los Angeles Public Library project seemed to speak the most directly to the spirit of what Beck aimed for with Song Reader.
Rapper/singer Childish Gambino (who some of you may know by his real name Donald Glover when acting on shows such as Community) took an understated, falsetto approach to “Please Leave a Light on When You Go.” Some may remember Gambino and Beck collaborating on a hip-hop track a couple of years back, but this was a straight-up display of vocal subtlety for him. Mother and daughter Allison and Tiffany Anders each gave a short speech afterwards on how music informed storytelling for them. Next, almost legendary LA producer Jon Brion took a colorful approach to “Just Noise.” This was just the right choice for Brion, a proper melding of playful arrangement and an equally unusual melody.
The best two performances of the night followed right after Brion. Newcomer Moses Sumney opted to make efficient use of a live looping effect pedal and created his own chorus layering in small pieces of vocal nuance on “Title of this Song.” Sumney pushed the limits of the song’s vocal melody, turning it into a tremulous piece of dramatic energy. This was impressive especially in comparison given the caliber of talent on stage tonight. Not to be outdone, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker next performed “Why Did You Make Me Care?” and brought the whole venue to a massive roar of applause with little more than his uncanny knack for stage presence and a few well-placed flamenco-infused dance moves. Charisma, thy name is Jarvis Cocker.
The orchestra left the stage at this point, and the pre-intermission number was performed with only acoustic guitar and voice by the trio of John C. Reilly, Becky Stark and Tom Brosseau. John C. Reilly most know from his serious and comedic film roles, but Tom Brosseau and Becky Stark each have successful music careers in their own right, Stark in particular from her band Lavender Diamond and a run with The Decemberists performing their Hazards of Love album. The trio performed a spiritual and decidedly charming (and non-threatening) take on the “The Wolf is on the Hill.”
After the brief intermission, the man himself Beck entered the stage, acoustic guitar in hand. He started with a troubadour approach on the anti-war rumination, “America, Here’s My Boy,” and then was joined by the orchestra for the night’s sole non-Song Reader track, “Wave,” currently slated to be on his upcoming album, Morning Phase. “Wave” highlighted the best use of the orchestra on the night, blooming in ululating drones, setting a heavy and somber tone. Beck exited the stage and Van Dyke Parks came out for the next spoken word performance. Parks gave a steady speech explaining his journey through music, how he got his start, how he ended up working with Brian Wilson on the Smile album and how it carried him through today. He offered up perhaps the night’s most directly meaningful quote, citing Harry Truman with, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you do not care who gets the credit.”
A giant in his own sphere, Columbian singer/guitarist Juanes had the unenviable job of being placed this late on this bill, but did a serviceable job performing a full Spanish rendition of “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard,” titling it “No Finjas Que to Corazon.” Later, Jenny Lewis was joined by actress Anne Hathaway for a simple rendition of “Last Night You Were a Dream.” Hathaway has a good enough voice to tackle the song, but it’s Lewis’ well-honed Southern Californian folksy/country tone that really carried the number.
The night’s final vocal guest Jack Black chose to make his entrance as unique as his entire vocal performance, starting from a hushed delivery in the crowd making light of the LA Phil’s infamous union curfew time rules. He came out to interplay with pianist Jonny Dyas on a trumped up, “We All Wear Cloaks.” Black can sing with the best of them, but here he opted more for a humorous overdrawn rasp, taking the song quite amazingly to a place where it would nestle nicely in with the rest of the songs in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Tig Notaro has the final spoken word segment, telling a story of how she inadvertently embarrassed a classmate by recommending the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” for show and tell, only to have the bell ring before the song’s opening chorale finished. Beck returned for the finale with the orchestra. He returned with Fred Martin and the Levite Camp and Roger Manning back on the pipe organ. They played “Heaven’s Ladder,” which may have been the single most ambitious Song Reader number played, but somehow just didn’t connect with it’s alternating segments and bombastic vocals. The orchestra left and the whole crew of singers and speakers came out to end on the kooky call-and-response, “Do We? We Do.”
It’s hard to chop up an event this ambitious other than to marvel at the mere fact that it happened without any noticeable flaw. A full orchestra, a dozen singers and a dozen speakers, this could’ve easily been a train wreck of epic proportions. But, it was not. Instead it was another of Beck’s ambitious creations delivered with as much gusto as could possibly be mustered. It’s rare that an artist would be so determined to show the world his creative ideas filtered through someone else’s notion of how they should be done. In a time where seemingly everyone and everything yearns to grasp greater control over a world increasingly out of control, this fact alone makes the whole effort by Beck commendable.