Twenty years ago, when Beck’s genre-bending Odelay hit the mainstream with hurricane force, there was concern that his newly won audience might not stick with him along every twist and turn on successive albums. In his Geffen Records contract he retained the right to release his more experimental work on independent labels.
That plan quickly fell by the wayside, and two decades later that sense of caution seems downright quaint. In two East Bay performances last week, Beck’s career-spanning set lists demonstrated not only how seamlessly he has merged various styles into a unique aesthetic, but how deeply that aesthetic has suffused a generation of pop music. Hip-hop beats with blues harmonica; country rockers backed with scratching turntables; slide-guitar riffs and hand-clap beats overlaid with video game beeps and classic rock samples — Beck’s all-encompassing melding pot of sound has proven to be a wellspring for the artists that have followed in his wake.
Against a backdrop of digital graphics and video clips, Beck showcased two hours worth of visionary pop at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre (July 14) and Oakland’s Fox Theatre (July 15) with shows that were energetic and crowd-pleasing yet infused with the artist’s modest, down-to-earth demeanor. He offered up a bit of everything, playing songs from nearly all his albums, including audience favorites (“New Pollution,” “Loser”), elegant folk-pop (“Lost Cause,” “Blue Moon,” “Say Goodbye”), lesser-known album tracks (“Go It Alone,” “Soul of a Man”), and longtime live staples (“One Foot in the Grave,” “Devil’s Haircut”).
He even indulged in a medley of covers. Two choruses into his standard show-closer, “Where It’s At,” Beck pulled a bait-and-switch, stopping the song cold and parking himself on the drum riser for a bit of one-on-one banter with the audience. Band members folded their arms and leaned against amps while Beck spun a low-key monologue that eventually gave way to band introductions, during which each musician led the eight-piece group in a late-’70s or early-’80s classic: Chic’s “Good Times,” Gary Numan’s “Cars,” the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster,” Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” and David Bowie’s version of Iggy Pop’s “China Girl.”
Beck has been touring fairly consistently for the past couple of years, but this is a rather odd moment in his career. By the time his critically acclaimed Morning Phase (2014) won the Grammy for Best Album, he had already announced that a follow-up album of celebratory pop was imminent. Two years later, it has yet to be released. In the meantime, Beck put out two singles to whet the appetite and to provide some new, more upbeat songs to perform to complement the quieter tracks from Morning Phase.
Even those singles are more than a year old at this point but they proved to be highlights of the East Bay shows. Dance floor stomper “Dreams” had the crowd moving, and the incandescent pop confection “Wow,” augmented with day-glo visuals, was as dazzling as the studio recording, showing that in the third decade of his career, Beck’s capacity for inventive and infectious music has not diminished.