I’ll admit that when I heard that Beck’s new album, Morning Phase, was being described as a “companion piece” to his 2002 album Sea Change, I wasn’t too excited. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate Sea Change, it’s just that I think Beck is better when he is more “two turntables and a microphone” than “too broken up and a microphone.”
But being the open-minded music lover that I am, I gave the new album a whirl, and it turns out that I really like it. It clearly has a lot in common with Sea Change, including using the same musicians, but I prefer its brighter mood, both musically and lyrically.
The Sea Change / Morning Phase band was on hand at Beck’s sold-out performance at the Arlington Theatre on Wednesday night, namely Smokey Hormel on guitar, Roger Joseph Manning Jr. on keyboards, Justin Meldal-Johnsen on bass and Joey Waronker on drums, augmented for the first time by multi-instrumentalist Gus Seyffert. This was a return to town for Beck, whose last visit was to the Santa Barbara Bowl was almost two years ago.
As might be expected with this lineup, there was a lot of mellow Sea Change and Morning Phase material on the program. In fact, the first third of the concert was almost exclusively drawn from these albums, with some of the new songs played live for the first time ever. A couple of early highlights were the new ones “Blackbird Chain” and “Blue Moon,” and it was also cool when they played a more minimal version of the older one “Paper Tiger,” mostly stripped of the Histoire de Melody Nelson orchestration of the recorded version and with trippy visuals of shapes parting down the center on the screen behind the band.
After this warm-up, Beck promised that “we’re gonna liven things up a little bit,” and he gave the crowd “permission” to dance before launching into the rockin’ “Devil’s Haircut.” And dance they did, with a number of people rushing up to the stage where they remained for the rest of the show. This was the first of several tracks off his awesome album, Odelay, which provided other highlights, including “Hotwax” and “Sissyneck,” which amusingly morphed into a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean.”
Also of note were the hypnotic “Soldier Jane” and the soulful “Debra,” which arguably went on too long but was given a funny local twist when Beck started out saying that he “met this girl down at the Camarillo outlet” mall.
The main set ended with Beck’s breakthrough song “Loser,” which is still infectious with its mix of rock, blues and hip-hop influences. The encore kicked off with “Where It’s At,” another brilliant blend of influences, with Doors-style keyboards, trippy lyrics and a hip-hop vibe. This included a break for a verse of the harmonica-driven “One Foot in the Grave” — that was a good harp break!
The show ended with the raucous “E-Pro,” and, as for the Santa Barbara Bowl concert two years ago, had a “special guest,” Beck’s son, Cosimo, out on stage, this time playing tambourine.
Beck seems to have a fondness for Santa Barbara, early on saying “I feel very lucky to be here” and calling the Arlington “a very evocative room.” Indeed, this was a most fitting venue for such an evocative artist, whose music has visited so many genres over the years, sometimes revisiting previous territory but more often taking things in a whole new direction.
The Golden Age
Soul of a Man
Que Onda Guero
Think I’m in Love / I Feel Love (Donna Summer cover)
Sissyneck / Billie Jean (Michael Jackson cover)
Where It’s At / One Foot in the Grave
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.