“It was like a Las Vegas show in the absolute best sense.” — ScottyB
Truer words ne’er been spoken. The concert began with a band-less stage backed by a huge screen depicting oddly genuine marionettes that looked identical in dress and appearance to the corresponding members of Beck’s outfit. The familiar opening refrain of Loser started — still with no band in sight — and the puppets cranked into the first song I ever heard by Beck, both as a stoned teenager and now live in person.
The band then emerged from the side-stage, and each musician picked up his respective instrument (or in the case of Ryan the vibe dancer, prepared to flail). About halfway through the song, maybe even sometime after they segued into Black Tambourine, I realized the puppet show wasn’t pre-recorded shennanigans; these were live shennanigans, and those are the best kind of shennanigans. “Good lord, these puppets are putting on the exact live show that the real band is performing.”
So it went all night: It’s flat-out impossible to separate musical reality from puppetry. I stared in amazement and bemusement at the miniature band for entire songs, blown away by one of the most creative gimmicks I’ve ever seen at a rock concert. The troupe of skilled puppeteers changed their charges’ instruments whenever the band members themselves did, they had those little dudes actually strumming guitars and beating on drums, and they even pulled off Puppet Cam, projecting the real-life band and the crowd onto the big screen from the point of view of the marionettes.
As incredible as the music was — and it really was fantastic, blending rock and funk and reggae and hip hop and dance beats and the almighty ballad — the mindfuck provided by those lifeless yet frenetic marionette facsimilies will stay with me ’til the day I die. The illegitimate son I one day bounce on my knee will no doubt hear about the night Beck and his far-out gravy train rolled through the world’s most famous arena.
Above all else, I can’t help but applaud the incredible versatility of Beck’s band. Every one of ’em plays a shitload of instruments, and they’re constantly switching it up (except for the drummer, who looked like a wicked combination of ?uestlove and Pachanga from Carlito’s Way). I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when Beck picked this band. It’s as if he said, “Hey you, can you play the guitar? Well, how about flute? A little xylophone? You’re hired, broseph.” Then the next guy comes in: “Can you play the bass? How about the conga drums? Can you look like Malcolm Gladwell in a leather biker outfit? You’re hired, too!”
Call me equally impressed with the pace of the show, which may not seem like a big deal, but when there are seconds in between songs instead of minutes, it really keeps the momentum of the show rolling. With most bands I see, if they’re not doing this “>” or this “–>,” they’re usually take their sweet ass time figuring out what to play next. Beck takes a short Scientology-loving breath and launches right into the next track.
Towards the end of the evening Beck switched into acoustic mode, including an interesting solo cover of the Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize? As he played, the band sat down to a full dinner on stage and at one point broke into a Stomp-style jam session using silverware and glassware and run-of-the-mill table wares. The puppets also joined in with the Clap Hands/One Foot in the Grave medley at the back of the stage. (see below for video of the scene)
Following a seriously kickass version of Where It’s At to close the show that featured Beck playing with the puppet band and Beck Puppet fronting the real one, the screen displayed a five-minute clip of the Beck Puppets Taking Manhattan, a vignette in which the band trashed the dressing room and someone got hit in the face with a banana. I didn’t take any video of the scene, but here’s a reasonably similar clip of the Beck Puppets Taking Bonnaroo.
A punchy two-song encore followed, the first one with some simulated bear sex in full regalia (costumed, of course), the second being an E-xcellent E-Pro that ignited the crowd like at no other point in the evening. It’s always nice to send everyone home whipped up in a frenzy; it’s good for the New York economy.
I thought I’d seen a lot of good shows over the past few years, but Beck made me realize that most of them were just plain old concerts.