Beck, Royal Albert Hall, London, ***

Nick Hasted@IndyVoices
Friday 15 November 2013 04:39

Beck has thrown Bob Dylan's career into reverse. He has arrived at a venue famous for being scandalised by Bob going electric to unplug his own future funk-folk. Having previously high-kicked his way across UK stages with a semi-ironic soul revue, and just toured the US backed by The Flaming Lips' psychedelic fireworks, this will, we're told, be Beck cut to the bone: just him, his acoustic guitar and his broken heart, after the split from a long-time girlfriend detailed in last year's uncharacteristically soul-baring album Sea Change. Without even the lush arrangements that made that record almost uplifting, a perversely spartan evening seems in prospect, from a star whose style-splicing was once so thrilling.

But when Beck strolls on stage, slight in a dapper dark suit, it's soon clear that the tormented, transfixing show I'm half-wanting is not on offer. Though he begins perched on a stool, strumming his way through the morose likes of "Guess I'm Doing Fine" in a dolorous baritone, no pain creases his features. After the catharsis of writing Sea Change's songs, he sings them with his old urbane distance.

Nor is Beck really returning to his early Nineties roots as a scuffling troubadour in New York's "anti-folk" clubs. He has furnished the stage with not just a stool, but the contents of a musty music room, including a rickety grand piano, antique drum machine and synth, and he can't resist their possibilities for long.

It's somehow not surprising, either, that it's when acoustic, agonised Beck is ignored that he becomes more open-hearted, and moving. It's by plugging in his electric guitar, switching on his drum machine, and starting to murmur the beat refrain of his biggest hit, "Loser", to a Chicago blues riff, that he makes you smile. Twisting strange shrieks out of an old synth with his wrists, it's as if these sounds are hand-made – if not acoustic, still crude and startling. He then tries "Where It's At" – with its famous chorus "two turntables and a microphone" – a capella, with hand-claps as beats. Inserting a burst of Nelly's "It's Hot in Here", he moves to that dusty piano, sounding as if he's in a Western saloon. Dylan-like, he has broken and rebuilt the originals, till you can barely recall them.

He climaxes the gig by wheezing through a mouth organ for "One Foot in the Grave", as acoustic a sound as you could wish. In between, he inserts a version of John Lennon's "Love", the opposite of Sea Change's despair. But it makes little difference. As you watch Beck tinker with his tools, you know raw emotion, even now, is not where he is at. Invention is his one lasting love.

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