Toward the end of Beck‘s set Tuesday night at Nile Rodgers‘ inaugural FOLD Festival in Riverhead, New York, bassist Justin Meldal-Johnsen told the crowd that the singer was “feeling a little emotional tonight.” Judging by fan response to the singer’s elegiac latest album, the Grammy-winning Morning Phase, the audience would’ve been forgiven if Beck had toned down his heretofore exuberant performance, airing an introspective track from that album or 2002’s Sea Change.
Instead, the singer emerged with a dapper white sport coat and brown fedora to sing “Debra,” his 1999 track — sung earnestly, written ridiculously — about the wooing of a JC Penney employee and her sister. By the end of the song, Beck was on his knees, center stage, emoting like it was the last time he’d ever belt out the tune.
Any vestiges of Morning Phase were dismissed last night, as Beck’s hour-long set pulled strictly from the more upbeat, dance-floor-friendly wing of his vast catalog. Rodgers organized and hosted the fest, which also featured Pharrell, Paloma Faith and Keith Urban. And given that Beck followed Rodgers’ own career-spanning victory-lap set with disco pioneers Chic, it’s not surprising that the singer would showcase and embrace the goofier side of his persona. Still, for his last U.S. show of the year, Beck exuded an exuberance and looseness that made his set feel more like an intimate warm-up show than a festival gig.
It did not start out so well. A long delay forced Rodgers and “zany” local morning DJs to awkwardly stall — “God did a solo record and Nile Rodgers produced it,” one DJ joked to no laughs — while waiting for the singer. By the time Beck came out to a smattering of applause, it appeared that the festival would come to an underwhelming conclusion.
But a pair of back-to-back hits — “Devil’s Haircut” and “Loser” — won back the crowd, as the singer jumped up and down, running across the stage and conjuring up the street-preacher bravado that characterizes his most boisterous shows. Performed live for the first time, new song “Dreams” — a ferocious, funky track that harks back to the joyful sound of albums like 2005’s Guero and 1999’s Midnite Vultures — fit in perfectly with the rest of the set.
The chameleonic singer also threw in some curveballs. At the end of “Hell Yes,” Guero‘s standout track, Beck channeled his inner rapper, rhyming the hook from Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.” The buoyant, bouncy “Think I’m in Love” from 2006’s The Information segued into Donna Summer’s disco classic “I Feel Love,” a crowd highlight and homage to the disco-heavy Rodgers set that preceded him.
The homage continued in more pronounced ways toward the end of the set, when Rodgers appeared onstage to assist with an extended version of 1996’s “Where It’s At.” The three-and-a-half-minute track became a sprawling, 20-minute jam, with Rodgers and guitarist Jason Falkner trading licks. The performance showcased the band’s disco leanings, as Meldal-Johnsen kickstarted the infamous “Good Times” bass line before the rest of the group joined in for that and “Miss You,” the Rolling Stones‘ 1978 disco hit. Beck began a lengthy harmonica solo, veering from Captain Beefheart–esque avant-garde blues to the more traditional stylings of Junior Wells and Little Walter before the band, Rodgers included, ended the set with a synchronized slide dance.
Since his debut more than 20 years ago, Beck has always straddled the line between devout student and smarmy prankster, crafting tracks that blend the earnest with the parodic. It’s a tricky balancing act: lean too far one way and get accused of pretentiousness; lean the other and you’re the butt of the joke. On Tuesday, using Rodgers as the obvious inspiration, Beck masterfully showed how to respect your elders with one eye winking.
Beck FOLD Festival Set List
1. “Devil’s Haircut”
3. “New Pollution”
4. “Hell Yes” (With “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See”)
5. “Think I’m in Love” (With “I Feel Love”)
6. “Blue Moon”
9. “Sexx Laws”
10. “E Pro”
12. “Where It’s At” (With “Good Times” and “Miss You”)