Last Friday night, Beck headlined the Hollywood Bowl, a joyful, quirky hometown stop on what has been a lengthy fifteen-month tour behind his 2017 album, Colors. His latest album picked up a Grammy nom at this year’s ceremony for Best Music Video for the track “Up All Night,” and at his show last week, plenty of the visual motifs that echoed the surreal, technicolor feel of that piece back across the stage. Of course, the more memorable Grammy moment for Beck, in the minds of millennials at least, was when he infamously upstaged Beyonce at the 2015 awards, receiving the Album Of The Year trophy for his 2014 release Morning Phase, when the entire watching public was positive the pop star would get her due for an industry-rocking, universally acclaimed self-titled album.
But it wasn’t in the cards for Beyonce, and Beck went home with the award, which was — for what it’s worth — his own third instance of being nominated for that major category after losing twice, once for Odelay (1997) and again for Midnite Vultures (2001). Yes, Beck fans initially went through the loss and disappointment that Beyonce fans felt in 2014… back in 1997, over two decades ago now. In 2018, it’s been exactly twenty-five years since Beck put out his unofficial debut, Golden Feelings in 1993, marking him as a musician in the generation above millennials, the oft-mentioned Baby Boomers. But, he is one of the few who have managed to stick around as a compelling and still commercially successful force in a world that has more often than not nudged these early icons out of the spotlight in the internet age.
Late last year, when Beck’s most recent album, Colors, came out, Uproxx’s Steven Hyden hit me up to get my take on Beck, as a millennial. “Of all the bands, why is he famous?” I responded, cavalier as ever. “Seems random.” But after reading Hyden’s piece on the record, which contextualized Beck’s career, I learned about the innovation and enormous praise that followed Beck’s earliest work, background I had been completely unaware of, even as a casual fan of a couple of hits of Odelay, along with Sea Change and Guero, the Beck albums that came out when I was a teenager.
And while Hyden’s conclusion was that Beck’s most recent album isn’t aligned with the early creativity and feverish attention that defined his break out, my own response was a renewed appreciation for the way Beck has been able to shapeshift as an artist. That’s the kind of longevity that any millennial, accustomed to the 15 seconds of fame for no real reason viral sensation, can respect. It’s not that Beck is random, rather the opposite, he’s purposefully stretched his sound, influences, interests, and collaborators over the course of two and a half decades, all while retaining his signature Beck-ness.
The fact that Beck was dipping into hip-hop production and rap decades before the rest of the white mainstream had normalized the overpowering force of hip-hop on culture, and that he did this after initial beginnings in the anti-folk movement, gave an added sheen to his later indie-famous albums that I’d enjoyed. More pointedly, he shouted out the tools of hip-hop — two turntables and a microphone — on the album that the Grammys ultimately snubbed, still giving one of his biggest hits the cache of being ahead of its time, at least in indie circles that now fervently embrace hip-hop. But while he may have seen the writing on the wall before most rockers, it’s his own sound that won Beck the following he still boasts.
Over the course of the last year, I’ve spent time with different phases of Beck’s career in shifts, discovering the cult favorite Midnite Vultures for myself, unpacking One Foot In The Grave, devouring Odelay as a whole, and even diving into 2008’s Modern Guilt, his briefest album and a collaboration with Danger Mouse on production. To my surprise, another personal favorite, Chan Marshall aka Cat Power (who has a fabulous new record of her own out this week), shows up singing on two of the songs there. (This was before most indie stars understood combining their star power was a win for both, and long before talking points about gender parity in the industry became a trendy talking point.)
So yes, Beck headlined the Hollywood Bowl last Friday, but he also headlined it ten years ago, a feat not many artists who are currently performing brand new material at the venue can claim. The Los Angeles-born innovator is perhaps best-known at this point as one of the great chameleons of the indie age, and even if his shapeshifting is no longer a defining force in the culture at large, he still has enough of a finger on the pulse to deliver a show that was on par with any other stadium show I’ve seen this year. Onstage, he pursued the strange and reverent with the enthusiasm of a wild, young artist.
From a gorgeous, somber tribute to Prince on “Raspberry Beret” to a brief interpolation of an infamous Kanye West riff late in the set, Beck and his band also gladly welcomed the local group, Pastor T.L. Barrett And The Youth For Christ Choir, for several different portions of the evening, placing talented women of color belting gospel-ready blues refrains front and center on one of the largest stages in the city during a week that had seen the highest forms of government silencing and degrading the experiences of women in America.
A final mash-up that combined Chic’s “Good Times,” New Order’s “Blue Monday,” and The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” with Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime” and Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” as a means of introducing his band, one by one, felt like a revelation of all the influences and masters Beck has steadily been taking notes on throughout his career. “Where It’s At” wasn’t just an ode to a great club or the thriving rise of DJ and hip-hop culture, it’s also a breakdown of just how many references Beck has pulled into his own orbit, channeling them all back through his own band whenever possible. Perhaps the internet has made his once awe-inducing encyclopedic knowledge accessible to all, but knowledge isn’t the whole battle, it’s what you do with what you know that makes or breaks you.
Finally, all throughout the show, Beck made known his special appreciation for the city that raised him, peppering the set with LA specific references and stories to go along with selections like “Qué Onda Güero,” “Hollywood Freaks,” and even sharing the backstory of an insane neighbor for a snippet of the early cut, “Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat).” As I looked around the Bowl that night, it was very clear who the demographic that had turned out to see Beck was — they were all Baby Boomers, markedly older than me and a friend by at least a few years, and some by as many as a few decades. And yet, despite the gap, there was no mistaking the feeling that informed everyone in the place defiantly belting out when he began to play the hits: “I’m a loser baby! / so why don’t you kill me?”
After all, not everything is generational, there is plenty about what makes us human that supersedes age, gender, or generation. Though fame may be random, of all the bands who think they might deserve to be in Beck’s spot, there is perhaps no one who has managed to make the spot they occupy change shape more times or with greater ease than Beck. And he did it all with just the basics — two turntables and a microphone. Not bad for a loser.