Beck's latest album, The Information, isn't just an album -- it's a multimedia masterwork. With a design-your-own-cover courtesy of some super-fly stickers and a bonus disc of homemade, lo-fi music videos to boot, the cryptic troubador has raised the bar for what a record can be.
So it's no surprise that last night's stop at the intimate Theater at Madison Square Garden possessed some of that same idiosyncratic multimedia ingenuity. (For $35 bucks, fans could design their own T-shirts with iron-on decals in the lobby before the show.) When the lights dimmed promptly at 9 P.M., "Loser" blared over the house speakers. A parade of wooden marionettes appeared behind the band's set-up, projected on a large screen for all to see as they performed the first few bars of the song. When Beck and his crew of merry pranksters strolled onto the stage, it became clear that the tiny puppets were outfitted in hipster duds matching the band's outfits perfectly. For the duration of the stellar show, the mini-band played their own tiny instruments in perfect time to the music. Beck's puppet-double even strummed a miniature version of his junk-shop Silvertone guitar, opening its mouth to lipsynch whenever Beck sang. The spectacle created a goofy, playful hall-of-mirrors effect.
Unlike a lot of acts who use sophisticated studio trickery and end up sounding flat in concert, Beck makes his tunes sound just as good in a live setting. The grab-bag of songs he performed spanned almost all of his albums: "Devil's Haircut" from Odelay was a faithful recreation of the album cut, right down to the horn and synth samples. A rendering of "Mixed Bizness" from Midnite Vultures captured a Parliament Funkadelic-meets-James Brown party vibe, especially when Beck pleaded to the crowd, "New York City, it's been a long time. Can I take it a little bit higher?"
Of course, Beck treated the audience to plenty of tracks from his new album, all of which came off sounding both exacting and effortless. The singer and his five-piece band -- including Ryan Falkner, who, when not playing percussion, showed off some sweet dance moves, and Justin Meldal-Johnsen whose sophisticated bass licks shook the room -- did a breezy version of the back-porch rocker "Elevator Music." And Beck's lackadaisical rap on the sweeping funk meets chamber pop of "Dark Star" came out like molasses.
Halfway through, Beck announced, "Time for dinner." Stagehands brought out a dining set replete with silverware and glasses, and the players seated themselves at the table, repurposing the supper-club tableau used on 2005's Guero tour. The singer strummed through a few acoustic tunes, including a cover of the Flaming Lips' "Do You Realize" and "Golden Age." But when the puppets started replicating the dinner act, the show reached gimmick overload.
That said, Beck made sure that the fans -- who paid an average of fifty bucks per ticket -- got their money's worth. Even before the raucous encore of "1000BPM" and "E-Pro," a video with the puppets running amok in Manhattan -- grabbing a slice of pizza, checking out stripper listings, trashing the dressing room -- could've been a "Crank Yankers" skit. There wasn't a dull moment the whole night through.