Because we live in an age where even many professional musicians can't read sheet music, it seemed like a quixotic gesture last year when Beck released Song Reader: 20 new songs, not recorded in the studio, but rendered as sheet music in a book published by McSweeney's. While you can't rip a paper book to your iPod, Beck's printed collection has had some cool side effects: people adapting the songs and uploading the results to YouTube, and all-star concerts featuring the songs in San Francisco and London. Last night marked the third show in that series, in Beck's hometown of Los Angeles, at the gorgeous Walt Disney Concert Hall.
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Beck's dad, David Campbell, conducted the 61-piece Los Angeles Philharmonic, and a staggering number of stars came onstage to perform a song, including Jack Black, Jarvis Cocker and John C. Reilly. Live performance of 14 Song Reader selections revealed that it's not Beck's strongest bunch of tunes: too many of them feel like self-conscious genre exercises or are just forgettable. But the concert was a blast, proving that a Beck failure can be more interesting than many other people's successes.
Jarvis Cocker gave one of the evening's two best performances, on "Why Did You Make Me Care?" The lanky Pulp frontman strode onstage and asked the audience, "Are you having a good time? Let's see if we can do something about that." He then threw himself into the song's literate torment, singing passionately, swinging his hips, and even throwing in some interpretive flamenco dancing along the lip of the stage.
The other standout was Moses Sumney, who has recently become acclaimed in L.A. for his folk-soul performances without officially releasing any music (but who is clearly an artist to watch out for). Sumney tackled "Title of This Song," and appeared to be looping his own vocals live. Since the song is about the uselessness of language, it was fitting that the most memorable part of Sumney's performance was his gorgeous multi-tracked nonverbal crooning.
Other highlights: Childish Gambino (a.k.a. Community star Donald Glover) sang "Please Leave a Light on When You Go" in falsetto over some heavy-duty Philharmonic strings. Although his reading was oddly staccato, he demonstrated that he not only can rap, he can pull off a deep soul ballad. John C. Reilly, in a folkie mode with Becky Stark and Tom Brosseau, made "The Wolf Is on the Hill" sound like a lost Fairport Convention number. And Jenny Lewis (of Rilo Kiley) was joined by surprise guest star Anne Hathaway; the duo harmonized beautifully on "Last Night You Were a Dream."
Between songs there were uniformly excellent spoken-word performances (or "speeches," if you prefer), generally on the themes of music and Los Angeles, by guests including comic Tig Notaro, lyricist Van Dyke Parks, filmmaker Allison Anders and her DJ daughter Tiffany Anders, academic Josh Kun, music supervisor Randall Poster and restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. Plus, animator Christian Robinson contributed a charming short film built around children's opinions on music.
Other singers included Jack Black (amusing on "We All Wear Cloaks"), producer Jon Brion (a heartfelt reading of "Just Noise"), Merry Clayton (an impassioned gospel-flavored "Eyes That Say 'I Love You'"), Colombian star Juanes (a Spanish-language version of "Don't Act Like Your Heart Isn't Hard") and Beck himself. The songwriter did "America, Here's My Boy" solo on guitar: it felt like a protest song Neil Diamond might have written in 1972. "Heaven's Ladder" sounded like a Tin Pan Alley castoff. The most successful of Beck's three numbers was the cinematic "Wave," where he successfully surfed the orchestral swells of the Philharmonic.
Everyone ambled back onstage for a finale of "Do We? We Do." The singers traded off lines and led the audience in some call and response. Clayton belted out her lyrics with enough power to blow everyone off the stage – and then adjusted the collar on Donald Glover's sheepskin jacket. She was passing on two lessons: even on a night that was all about songs, singers could reign. And you can always make a good visual impression, even when you aren't backed up by a giant crying cat in outer space.