Is a "surprise show" packed with several hundred people that much of a surprise? Not really, but that's how Beck's gig was billed at Bimbo's last night in San Francisco. In town for the massive Outside Lands festival in Golden Gate Park this weekend, the singer squeezed in a show here at the last minute, and tickets sold out after going on sale at noon with little warning.
The show was a semi-surprise, but for the most part, the set list was not. It's been four years since Beck's last album, and in the absence of new material, the 90-minute performance drew from songs spanning most of his career, from his 1994 breakthrough Mellow Gold to 2008's Modern Guilt. The mild surprise these days lies not so much in what he'll play as in what order he'll play it. Most of his concerts, including this one, make room for favorites like the set-opening "Black Tambourine," "Girl," "Where It's At" (with a brief puzzling keyboard riff quoting Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon") and "Think I'm in Love," even if he did tease things out by waiting until the first encore to unleash the inevitable "Loser" (and, refreshingly, refrained from doing "Devil's Haircut" at all).
Even the most offbeat offering, a barely recognizable thumping blues-rock cover of Bob Dylan's "Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat," found release in 2009 on the War Child Presents Heroes benefit compilation. A little oddness peeped out elsewhere as well, with "Bad Blood" (from a soundtrack album to the HBO True Blood series) receiving only its second live performance. Oddest of all, the band tried out Neil Young's "Barstool Blues"without even having rehearsed it, as they cheerfully admitted onstage.
But if the mostly younger-than-Beck crowd was impatient to hear evidence of more recent original material, they didn't show it. The crowd's mood was made merrier by clouds of marijuana smoke, the contact high reaching the stage when the band stumbled over lyrics on "Lost Cause" and had to start over (and then launched into the second verse). "Don't hold it against us if we're playing these a little slower than usual," advised the unruffled star, sporting a natty black hat as he delivered his catalog with calm assurance.
While the five-man lineup Beck now fronts can't replicate all the sampling and miscellaneous special effects that give his studio work much of its exoticism, it also frees him to deliver a more straightforward sound unfettered by gimmickry. Few bands are as adept at combining rock and funk in equal measures, chest-thumping bass deftly supporting squealing rock guitar heroics. "Hotwax" mixed country blues (courtesy of Smokey Hormel's slide guitar), Steve Wonder and hip-hop without coming off as the forced genre-blender it would have sounded like in almost anyone else's hands.
And when Beck exchanged his electric guitar for an acoustic model for a sequence of rootsier songs in the middle of the evening, you almost wondered whether he might have missed his calling as a more sensitive country-blues-flavored singer-songwriter. He hit his most comfortable stride on the chorus of the most lilting of these, "Sunday Sun." Almost as if to make sure the crowd didn't get as comfortable as Beck, however, Hormel and bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen concluded the song with some ear-piercing, amp-humping feedback.
Indeed, Meldal-Johnsen was more animated than the bandleader, leaping onto the drum riser at a couple points. Beck himself rarely strayed more than a few feet from his microphone. Only occasionally did he utter droll asides to the audience, enigmatically announcing, "We have come to tell you about the rhythms of . . . Glendale" before launching into the title cut from Modern Guilt. No comments were forthcoming on his just-announced December 2012 "album" Beck Hansen's Song Reader, featuring 20 songs and "existing only as individual pieces of sheet music, never before released or recorded." Perhaps actually playing them in concert might have been spoiling the fun, at least before those buying the album have the chance to play the tunes themselves.
Beck did have one more genuine surprise to unveil, however, before the evening was over. Barely had the second encore, "Mutherfuker," gotten off the ground before he brought it to a halt, finding it not "grooving" enough for a Thursday night San Francisco audience. Revving up their engines again, the band launched into a far faster and funkier version, somewhat along the lines of how Sly & the Family Stone might have played it. "Okay, that's enough dancing," Beck barked after a few minutes, ever the contrarian. "Stop!"