Little man with the big voice

Beck | Wembley Arena, London
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The Independent Culture

Sometimes described as the world's most fashionable man, and yet the perpetual recipient of the Best International Male Artist Award at the distinctively unhip Brit awards, Beck Hansen is a mass of contradictions.

Brought up in a highbrow if dirt-poor artistic family, and acutely aware of musical tradition without ever deferring to it, his series of albums since 1994's Mellow Gold have encompassed hip hop, folk, punk, Latin-styles and most recently the electrosounds of the 1980s, without apparently compromising his own identity.

He works hard, too. In 1999 alone he went through the sort of court case which usually halts careers but yet again managed to produce what was an impressively detailed record. And one thing is for sure: he can certainly dance.

Yet somehow such eclecticism and apparent ease in whatever genre he sets his mind to has lately inspired rumblings of dissatisfaction from some critics. Last year's Midnite Vultures, in its lurid yet easy to spot lime-green cover, attempted to rehabilitate the sort of sounds generally unloved in Britain yet unavoidably familiar to any Los Angeles native like its creator. Beck simply never repeats himself. His current world tour has already featured a different set each and every night and this evening is no exception to the rule.

Opening with the ancient, frenetic "Beercan", the first handful of songs tonight are all old favourites. "Novakane" features some ornate posing from the band, especially keyboard wizard (literally - he's wearing a crimson cape like Bill Bailey might sport on Never Mind the Buzzcocks) Roger Manning. The crowd love it and lap it up. "New Pollution" and "Loser" are mass singalongs, a giant mirrorball somehow transforming this horrible hangar into some kind of discotheque.

But it's the run of "Tropicalia" (an ode to Brazil's 1960s scene), the anthemic rock of "Milk and Honey", and the very funky, very funny "Hollywood Freaks", that show the insane range of the very little man with the very big voice.

Slipping from the mindless if compelling punk rock of "Minus" into the super-charged country of "Lord Only Knows" is just typical, and wonderful. The hilarious falsetto ballard "Debra" ("I wanna get with you... and your sister") brings down the house, especially when a double bed drops down from the gantry. Where Prince and Alexander O'Neal have used such props to suggest seduction, Beck suggests frustration, which is probably truer to life.

A short acoustic segment is tremendous, as one man and his harmonica enthrals thousands with the Blues of "One Foot In The Grave", while the dreamy "Jack-Ass", an extended version of "Where It's At", climaxed the set.

A chaotic encore of "Devil's Haircut", where the band don daft wigs, reasonably enough, and - confusingly - cricket pads, proves that Beck doesn't take it all that seriously. This man remains a great showman and artist.

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