Beck Gets His Sea Legs

Irony meets misery at intimate San Francisco show

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As downcast as his forthcoming album Sea Change is, the inimitable funk-folkie Beck was up to some typical mischief last night in San Francisco.

"I may ruin my career tonight," he warbled, delaying his first song fifteen minutes or more as he made up silly lyrics on the spot, fiddled with his harmonica rack and rambled at length about Yanni being a guilty pleasure. His doting fans, who snatched up tickets to the singer's brief warm-up tour via his Web site, would have tolerated just about anything.

Beck's family background in absurd conceptual art was in full effect at the 1,000-seat Palace of Fine Arts Theater, where he interrupted somber songs for comic forays into death metal and stomped out his harmonica part on "One Foot in the Grave" like a Jewish groom on a glass at a wedding.

That image might not be so funny to Beck, whose Sea Change chronicles his deep despair following a break-up with his longtime girlfriend. The set list featured a handful of the glum but gorgeous new songs, with self-explanatory titles such as "Lost Cause" and "Lonesome Tears."

Much of the show drew from 1998's Mutations, for which Sea Change is emerging as a companion album of sorts. Both are reflective, deeply personal and surprisingly moving, given the style-skewering artist's characteristic antics. Dressed in a funereal black jacket and a wrinkled pink dress shirt, the diminutive performer perched on a stool at center stage, surrounded by an array of quirky instruments -- a harmonium, a celesta, a boxy Roland drum machine mounted like a one-legged robot. When he finally got down to business, he opened on acoustic guitar with "Cold Brains," from Mutations.

Recalling his teenage infatuation with classic roots music and the "gutbucket" country blues, he played mature, quietly eerie versions of Hank Williams' "Lonesome Whistle" and Skip James' "Devil Got My Woman." "Bluebird at my window," he mused wistfully on the new song "Guess I'm Doin' Fine," which didn't seem quite so sure as the title. It was the kind of straightforward symbolism Beck usually has about as much use for as Woody Guthrie needed sequins.

Multi-instrumentalist Smokey Hormel joined Beck onstage for several songs, beginning with the acoustic Led Zeppelin-ish "Bottle of Blues." The toys at his disposal seemed to make Beck restless, and he began milling around among them, idly tinkling a melody on the celesta that soon morphed into an impromptu verse or two of Prince's "Raspberry Beret."

"You're going to have to feed me a lot of peanuts," he warned as audience members hollered out one request after another. Whatever his frame of mind, Beck seems incapable of sustaining the solemnity that defines some of his best songs.

"I'm going to stop being goofy now," he announced, then proceeded to muck around with adjustments on a microphone stand like a roadie Charlie Chaplin. But the ensuing song, a version of "Nobody's Fault But My Own" on which he wheezed out his own droning accompaniment on the harmonium, was well worth the wait: As he repeated the maudlin refrain, he seemed to lose himself in it, finally breaking through to a state of raw candor that was, for the moment, completely irony-free.

A few minutes later, Beck the imp was back, goofing on the faux funk of "Nicotine and Gravy," fidgeting with the tempo of the drum machine, poking out indifferent solos on an electric piano. One encore -- a euphoric car crash of beats and samples wrung from a purple plastic toy keyboard -- stepped up the hijinks another notch.

But the others -- the Velvet Underground's gentle "Sunday Morning," which he played on celesta, and an appealing duet with Hormel on the Everly Brothers' "Sleepless Nights" -- made it clear Beck's upcoming tour (with the Flaming Lips as his backup band) will focus on his newfound humility. Apparently, it's a sea change for him.

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