Heading up the steep sidewalks of Nob Hill Friday night to see Beck play the first concert at the rechristened Masonic since undergoing a significant overhaul by new proprietors Live Nation, I wasn’t sure which rebirth intrigued me more.
[jump] Over the past couple of decades, the Masonic Auditorium hosted some of my favorite SFJAZZ concerts, including absolutely magical shows by Brazilian icon Caetano Veloso, the late Alice Coltrane, saxophone legend Wayne Shorter and Ornette Coleman’s memorable 1994 appearance when onstage piercings by modern primitive Fakir Musafar led many outraged patrons in tuxedos and evening gowns to flee the hall. I didn’t know if the changes to the venue would make me feel nostalgic for the jutting circular stage and squeaky theater seats or happy that the spot had finally gotten a proper facelift.
Conversely, the last time I’d seen Beck live at Outside Lands in 2012, his detached performance drifted in a lackadaisical bubble light years from the Dadaist stage banter and kinetic breakdancing that made him such a joy to see in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Recent reviews indicating the songwriter had returned to his former glory with help from some of the musicians that made the tours for Midnight Vultures and Guero so incendiary raised hopes that Friday would be a special night. (Check out our slideshow of the concert.)
Entering the lobby of the Masonic, we were met with two familiar sights: the spectacular window mosaic created by artist Emile Norman and the usual long lines of folks buying drinks. However, this time instead of hastily mixed cocktails and beers being handed out over folding tables, now the venue has permanent bars installed along the room’s back wall and – more importantly – attendees can at long last (praise Chebus!) bring their adult beverages inside the auditorium.
After being told that Beck would be taking the stage fairly close to the advertised 8 p.m. start time, we opted to skip checking out the fancy new upstairs bar with reportedly dazzling views and head straight for the main floor. With all of the old theater seating removed, the Masonic features several semicircular levels of tiered standing space vaguely similar to the Warfield but with much cleaner, more modern lines leading down to the sizable stretch of real estate in front of the venue’s now wide, flat-fronted stage.
While there were no bars inside the performance space, there were waitresses serving drinks to those standing in the raised areas. As quickly as the floor filled up with a solidly packed crowd of anxious Beck fans jockeying for position, it probably made sense that the waitstaff was prohibited from venturing down where they'd be bombarded by drink orders and jostling elbows.
I started missing the Masonic’s creaky old seats as the wait for Beck to take the stage stretched from five minutes to 10 minutes to well over a half an hour before the songwriter and his band finally materialized. The crowd roared its approval as Beck strummed out the ringing chords of “The Golden Age” from Sea Change to kick off the evening.
Though some of the subtleties that mark the sublime studio version were lost as the sound man got a handle on the full auditorium’s acoustics, it was hard not to be moved by the song's wistful, melancholy vibe and the sweet harmony vocal support provided by his backing players.
“We’re sort of opening for ourselves,” Beck remarked before guiding the group into a stripped-down set that focused on songs from his latest effort, Morning Phase. Steeped in a songwriter tradition that echoed the spare sounds of Nick Drake and Laurel Canyon, the new tunes blossomed in a live setting with multi-instrumentalists Smokey Hormel and Jason Faulkner offering detailed keyboard and guitar filigree that fleshed out the new material.
There was no questioning the musicians' versatility during the set as they constantly juggled and switched instruments. After mentioning a cut on his thumb early on, Beck joked “What is this, an Ozzy show? We’ll be playing “Crazy Train” on banjo.” The band promptly obliged, briefly plunking out the Ozzy Osborne hit to the giggles of the fans who caught the reference. Beck indulged a couple of shouted requests, delivering an abbreviated take on his early nugget “Asshole,” but it was a little disappointing that no songs from Mutations made the cut for the acoustic portion of the show.
Following a short break, Beck and company returned to the stage to give the audience the unadulterated alt-funk throw down they craved from the beginning. Tearing into a ferocious take on the Odelay gem “Devil's Haircut” followed by the equally energetic “Black Tambourine,” Beck and company delivered a dance party powered by Justin Meldal-Johnson's over-driven bass tones and drummer Joey Waronker's insistent beat.
Any fatigue that might have been induced by the navel-gazing introspection of the band's mellower acoustic set was quickly wiped away as Beck reveled in the band's unstoppable momentum and his own breakdancing prowess to the crowd's delight. A fiery rendition of the slacker anthem “Loser” triggered possibly the most enthusiastic response of the evening, with everyone visible in the Masonic balcony on their feet and shaking their way through the tune's slide-guitar groove.
Packed thick with witty asides and pop-cultures references — the group seamless segued into Donna Summer's “I Feel Love” to finish “Think I'm in Love” — the electrified funk portion of Beck's set gave fans ample opportunity to lose themselves as the group indulged its goofy side. With band members collapsing in a heap after the musical frenzy of “E-Pro” that ended their set, the songwriter grabbed a roll of police tape and stretched it across the “crime scene” onstage.
Beck and company returned to the stage for an extended vamp through the beloved Midnight Vultures slow jam “Debra” with the singer extolling the Bay Area's love for “quiet storm” sounds. “I don't got no 'Dick in a Box;' but I do have some apricot cucumber exfoliating cream!” he cooed in his keening falsetto that has lost none of its stratospheric range over the years. A celebratory “Where It's At” with introductions and solos from each band member brought the proceedings to a close, sending the sweaty audience off smiling into the still warm, muggy San Francisco night.
The Golden Age
Heart Is a Drum
Think I'm in Love/I Feel Love (Donna Summer cover)
Soul of a Man
Where It's At (with band introductions)