BWW Reviews: Versatile BECK Brings Endless Energy to Spectacular PPAC Concert
In the name of full disclosure, I will admit to having no idea what to expect upon arriving at Providence Performing Arts Center on Saturday night for Beck's one-night-only appearance. Beck's songs had certainly been part of the soundtrack of my early college years, back in the mid-to-late 1990s. Since then, though, I truthfully had no idea what he had been up to. As it turns out, he's spent the better part of twenty years honing and fine tuning his skills as a singer, musician and all around entertainer, skills which he brought out in full force in front of the large and very enthusiastic Providence crowd.
Before Beck arrived onstage, the audience was greeted by his opening act, Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. The band is led by Sean Lennon, the son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, along with his girlfriend Charlotte Kemp Muhl, who plays bass and sings. Lennon certainly has plenty of talent with a guitar and a strong singing voice, but the set was hit-or-miss, at best. The psychedelic-rock vibe was very cool and the mellow, laid-back attitude in their songs and audience interaction was not unwelcome. They actually seem like very cool people to hang out and jam with, although this didn't feel like a simple jam session. That might have actually been preferable, something simpler or more pared-down, something that might have focused more on their voices and talent, rather than blinding us with flashing colored lights and blowing us away with loud guitar music.
Part of the problem may have been the acoustics in the Performing Arts Center. The building may not really be built for that kind of sound, or it may have just been some uneven work by the sound board operators. The music drowned out the lyrics, making them often impossible to hear. That is, when there were lyrics at all. Most of the time, it seemed, Lennon and his band prefered guitar solos to singing. Numerous guitar riffs, many of them all too familiar, took up long stretches of time. Frankly, I'd rather hear lyrics, the beauty and the story within the words of a song, rather than a musician proclaiming, "Look at how awesome I am at playing guitar," for the whole time they are on stage. But that may just be me.
Upon Beck's entrance, after a long break in between opener and main act, the energy in the room changed entirely. Still looking as young as he did twenty years ago, Beck has an immeasurable amount of charm and charisma. As he sat down to start the show off with some low-key folk songs, something akin to what's been happening at the Newport Folk Festival down the road, he drew the audience in, bringing them close without moving any of them physically. He somehow managed to make the cavernous space of PPAC feel small and intimate as he sang through a few songs from his new album before transitioning to some older tunes.
What made the performance even more impressive was Beck's ability to seamlessly and effortlessly switch between musical styles and genres. As mentioned, the show began with songs akin to folk, country or blues. They were chill and mellow, nothing like the rock and roll frenzy to come. During the course of the show, Beck switched from that initial folk singer vibe to a rapper, a soulful Motown crooner and then to a certifiable rock god. If someone had asked him to sing a punk rock death metal song in Spanish, he could probably do it. And do it without missing a beat, always with a smile on his face, as if he's truly happy to be there, entertaining everyone, and happy that we've all come to join him for the ride.
Speaking of joining him for the ride, a special surprise guest also showed up about three-quarters of the way through the show. After a brief break, Beck returned to the stage and announced a special guest: Jack White, who had just performed at the aforementioned Newport Folk Festival. White backed up Beck on the guitar and stuck around for the rest of the show, including Beck's most famous and recognizable hits. Watching Beck sing "Loser," his original breakthrough hit, while Jack White backed him up on guitar and vocals was likely one of the best, if not THE best, live musical performance that audience will ever see.
After that, the two ended the show with an extended version of "Where It's At," and absolutely brought the house down. It was the end of a musical journey with a guy who still comes across like the kid next door who just happens to be a musical prodigy. He also comes across as a passionate musician who loves what he does and appreciates his audience, who love him right back. And at PPAC last night, that love was rewarded with the concert experience of a lifetime.
Photo by Peter Hapak.