Barbican Centre, London

Pop review: Beck and Bruce Springsteen need your help

Springsteen is more than happy to take requests, but Hansen the singing Scientologist has a radical take on audience participation

He’s got two turntables and two dozen microphones. And the turntables onstage at the Barbican, unused but significant, aren’t just any old decks but a pair of vintage wind-up gramophones, the first vehicles for mass-produced recorded music. Beck Hansen – erstwhile trustafarian wunderkind, believer in Thetans, frustratingly intermittent talent – has released his new album, Song Reader, on sheet music only, rolling back the years to the 19th century when records didn’t exist and the score was all.

There is no definitive rendition. Yours at home is as valid as the London premiere, with its all-star cast including Jarvis Cocker and, gearing up for their own stellar comeback, Franz Ferdinand. The 20 songs, mostly rendered in traditional styles (sophisticated jazz, pastoral folk, Nashville country) are each illustrated prettily with a mock-up projected cover. There’s nothing on a par with “Loser” or “Sexx Laws”, but anti-war protest song “America, Here’s My Boy” and call-and-response finale “Do We? We Do” stand out.

The Mighty Boosh predictably take things furthest off-piste, with Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt fully caped up for “We All Wear Cloaks”, but the most enjoyable interpretations come from Watford close-harmony sister act the Staves and the Irrepressibles’ Jamie McDermott, whose soaring voice is the talk of the bar during the interval.

For five songs, Homburg-hatted manchild Hansen himself performs – which seems to defeat the object. Conceptually, the second-worst thing Beck could do is stage an “official” reading like this. The first-worst thing he could do is actually show up and play.

The show is stolen, in any case, by John Cooper Clarke who, with scant relevance to Song Reader, delivers his two-line poem, “Necrophilia”. “Forget foreplay, and all that palaver. Have a cadaver.”

There are two Bruce Springsteens: Arthouse Bruce and Stadium Bruce, to balance the Seeger Sessions labour of love and last year’s ferociously politicised Wrecking Ball with blockbusters such as Born to Run and The Rising. It’s how Bruce manages to pack out this expanse of concrete and fake grass in the shadow of the Olympic velodrome, and get the fair-weather fans listening to “Death to My Home Town”, a tin-whistle folk tune about the banking crisis.

The “Boss” of his mid-Eighties pomp was as artificial a creation as the grass on which we stand, and his all-American machismo frequently spilled over into camp. And you can’t get much camper than the cover of this show’s chosen album in full, Born in the USA, which even has a specific meaning in Hanky Code. It’s become compulsory to bleat about what a shame it is that the title song’s anti-war message has been misunderstood, but credit the man with some intelligence: he was having it both ways. If “Born in the USA” kicked down the door for superior songs such as “Cover Me” and “I’m on Fire”, then it did its job.

His band, the E Street Band, almost all go back to 1975, which means they can play the entire Springsteen oeuvre from muscle memory, which helps when he accepts requests from cardboard signs (“Johnny 99” and “Reason to Believe”), one of several set-piece stunts in the show. These include the almost papal laying-on of hands, a cameo on guitar from sister Pam, and a small child hoisted on his shoulders to sing “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”.

Springsteen’s at his best in urban romantic poet mode. Into that category fall “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and the 10-minute Bernsteinesque epic “Jungleland”, of which he admits: “I’m still finding things in it, way down the road ...” Above all, there’s “Born to Run”. Written when Arthouse Bruce desperately needed a smash to turn him into Stadium Bruce, it’s a maximalist masterpiece. Live, in the goose-pimpled flesh, the sustained tension before the big “1-2-3-4!” climax is one of the great moments in rock’n’roll.

NEXT WEEK Tune into Channel Orange with Frank Ocean

Critic’s choice

Pop-punk legends Blondie (Debbie Harry) round off a UK tour with shows at the Roundhouse, London (tonight) and Kew Royal Botanical Gardens (Tue). Meanwhile, New York synthpop-noir duo  MS MR showcase their debut album Secondhand Rapture at The Haunt; Brighton (Thu) and Wakestock Festival, Abersoch (Fri) and T In the Park, Balado (Sat).

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