At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, July 14
In interviews, Beck Hansen almost always plays it cagey, yielding precious few details about his creative process, and fewer still about his personal life. Among other things, we know he's a Scientologist, we know he's a husband and a dad, and we know he's friends with movie stars, but unlike Tom Cruise, he'll probably never reveal enough of himself to make us hate him. Better for Beck to remain aloof, to preserve the sense of mystery that makes him one of pop culture's most fascinating artists.
The Los Angeles native derives a large part of that mystery from the interplay of seemingly irreconcilable sounds and motions. On one hand, Beck revels in a certain trashiness of form and substance, his most well-known songs (like "Loser" and "Devil's Haircut") soldered together from all manner of junky samples and fragmentary lyrics. But if those hits made him seem like a slacker for whom nothing is sacred, the misty-eyed sublimity of 2002's Sea Change (among other poignant entries in his catalogue) paint him as the most euphorically sappy artist this side of Coldplay.
Effortlessly shifting between those personas last Thursday at a sold-out Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Beck left little doubt that his defining character trait is his pliability. After opening with some near-deafening cuts from this year's guitar-heavy Guero, he and his six-piece backing band summoned the twin gods of '80s-era Midwest funk (that's Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) for a mid-set medley of lascivious Midnite Vultures favourites: "Hollywood Freaks" and "Nicotine & Gravy". Thereafter followed a brief acoustic cover of Nelly's "Hot in Herre", which it was probably best to interpret as both homage and piss-take.
The night's high point came next, as Beck's bandmates left their instruments to join him at centre stage for a haunting rendition of Sea Change's "Lonesome Tears". As the frontman coaxed the song's wistful melody from an antique squeeze box, his friends clapped their hands and stamped their feet, a troupe of hipster goofballs leading a wake for their boss's broken heart. Such impromptu sound-making also crept to the fore during the ensuing acoustic set: as Beck worked his way through a melancholy version of "The Golden Age", his mates (seated behind him at a dinner table) used their cutlery and dishes to create a playful percussive clatter. If this was the singer's way of deflecting attention from his soul-baring lyrics, so be it. From any other artist, the ensuing transition from that spare ballad to "E-Pro", an elaborate cut-up funk song backed by all manner of digital gizmos, would have been jarring, but coming from Beck, it seemed only natural.
In bringing their righteous (and awfully catchy) feminist politics to the headliner's audience, Le Tigre scored a nice little victory for underground music. The more this New York City trio listens to Kylie Minogue, the more I seem to like them, nowhere more so than on this year's "TKO", a glittery post-disco tune that had almost everyone in the room dancing, even if only on the inside.