Midway through his first-ever headlining show at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Beck Hansen paused to make an admission – it wasn’t “actually, technically” his debut at the vaunted venue. He had a story to tell.
It was the 1997 Grammys, and his album Odelay was up for Album of the Year. After performing the album’s hit single, “Where It’s At,” for the telecast, Beck was “whisked around the catacombs backstage into some weird holding area.” Disoriented, the young star looked around. “There was one other figure there,” he recounted. “It was Bruce Springsteen. I just looked at him and he looked at me … I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And he looked back at me and said, ‘What are you doing here?'”
At 48, Beck is the same age today that Springsteen turned that year. And his career trajectory to this point bears some similarities to that of the Boss: Both started young and became known for prolific, versatile songwriting. Both explored multiple styles to popular and critical acclaim. Both eventually settled into roles as seasoned rock vets.
That’s the Beck who took the stage at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. Clad in his modern uniform of black blazer and wide-brimmed hat, he seemed less interested in cosplaying as a younger version of himself – the funk-rock freak or the dour folkie – than he did in delivering a polished, career-spanning performance. Like Radiohead and Foo Fighters, two Nineties and 2000s alternative peers who also played the venue in recent days, Beck is classic rock now, and he leaned into it.
Staples like “Devils Haircut” and “E-Pro” whirred along just fine, even if they lacked some of the spark that once characterized them. And Beck has sadly abandoned the slide-guitar theatrics he has brought to “Loser” in the past. Some songs from 2017’s upbeat, pop-oriented Colors impressed – the effervescent, late-career gem “Dreams,” particularly – while others, like deep cut “I’m So Free,” seemed out of place. (“We’re going to play something from the new record that you probably don’t know,” Beck admitted before kicking that one off, tacitly encouraging the crowd to grab another drink or hit the head.)
But Beck sensed the gig’s significance and leveraged it to create some outstanding moments. For Beatles-esque Colors confection “Dear Life,” he invited Spoon frontman Britt Daniel to join him, and the duo traded verses seamlessly before segueing into Spoon’s beloved “I Turn My Camera On.” Jenny Lewis, who delivered a charming opening set on short notice after Glass Animals dropped off the bill, came out to assist 1994 rarity “Girl Dreams,” which Beck said she’d suggested days earlier via text. “I said, ‘I don’t think anybody’s going to know that one,'” Beck recalled. “Then she said, ‘Well, Bill Murray really likes that song.’ So I was like, ‘Hell, yeah, we’re going to do that song!'”
Elsewhere, Beck’s 2000s catalog provided multiple highlights. From clear harmonies to thunderous drum breaks, every element of “Think I’m In Love,” off 2006’s The Information, popped – and then Beck teleported the tune to the dance floor with a cover of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” that channeled LCD Soundsystem’s visceral disco-punk. For 2005’s infectious Guero standout “Girl,” he managed to pull off a peculiar allusion to the hook of frenemy Kanye West’s “Power.” Sea Change centerpiece “Lost Cause” was the uncontested highlight of the set’s brief acoustic sequence and emphasized Beck’s unparalleled stylistic versatility.
Beck also repeatedly honored New York, the city he adopted as an 18-year-old fresh off a Greyhound bus and that his great-great-grandfather immigrated to – illegally, he noted in a not-so-subtle political jab – from Norway long ago. Naturally, he saved an epic Big Apple homage for the encore. Now dressed in a white blazer and hat, Beck launched into that same song he played two decades earlier at the Garden, tricking it out with the “Let me take you down …” lyric from “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
But he quickly steered “Where It’s At” in another direction, introducing the members of his band and prompting them to lead covers of iconic New York artists. A Tribe Called Quest, Chic, Television, the Velvet Underground and Talking Heads all received their due – bonus points to Beck’s backup singers for tweaking the “Once in a Lifetime” lyrics to “And you may ask yourself where it’s at/And you may find yourself with two turntables and a microphone.”
“I’ve made all these records over the years, just sort of skipping around styles and sounds and tones,” Beck had noted earlier in the show. “So many of you have gone along with it – or at least indulged me. Thank you for indulging me so often.” As he closed out his Garden show with a batty medley of covers, the audience indulged him yet again – and Beck didn’t disappoint.
Beck Set List
“The New Pollution”
“Up All Night”
“Qué Onda Guero”
“Think I’m in Love”/”I Feel Love”
“I’m So Free”
“Dear Life” (with Britt Daniel)
“I Turn My Camera On” (with Britt Daniel)
“Girl Dreams” (with Jenny Lewis)
“Where It’s At”
“Can I Kick It?”/”Good Times”/”See No Evil”/”I’m Waiting for the Man”/”Taking It to the Streets”/”Once in a Lifetime”/”In the Air Tonight”/”One Foot in the Grave”
“Where It’s At” (Reprise)