Ghost of a Saber-Toothed Tiger (GOASTT) with Sean Lennon
North Adams, Mass.
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Review and photos by Seth Rogovoy
(NORTH ADAMS, Mass.) – As if we needed any reminding, Beck demonstrated once again that he is one of the greatest entertainers and songwriters in modern music in his stellar (literally, under a clear, star-filled sky) concert at MASS MoCA on Tuesday night. Perhaps with the single exception of David Byrne – and perhaps not – there is no single individual who boasts such a broad command of popular music idioms, such a dense vocabulary, such a wide stylistic range, and such natural gifts of stagecraft, such that from the moment he took the stage to the moment the figurative curtain dropped – two hours in all – he kept several thousand concertgoers on their feet alternately spellbound, cheering, dancing, and at times maybe even crying, to his exhilarating rhythms, melodies and grooves.
Beck came out swinging with the one-two punch of “Devil’s Haircut” and “Black Tambourine,” two of his funkiest rockers, which set the tone for the evening with just the right blend of rock, funk, showmanship, hints of irony, familiarity, big bottom courtesy of drummer Joey Waronker, and Beck’s manic-yet-focused stage presence.
He ratcheted it down a notch after a few more tunes to touch on songs from his exquisite new album, “Morning Phase” – to my ears, his all-time best (I bumped into my pal Gregory Crewdson before the show, and the first words out of his mouth were, “Have you been listening to the new album?” which we both agreed is awe-inspiring) – which he returned to several times during the show. “Blackbird Chain” has the amazing ability to instantly conjure up the best of 1970s confessional singer-songwriter folk-rock – a little Neil Young, a little Jackson Browne, a hint of Dylan, with a dusting of more recent Wilco – but wholly original and immediate in Beck’s hands – really, the only such retro-folk-rock (other than Wilco’s) that makes any sense today.
“Loser,” the quirky novelty hit that first made Beck a star, was given the full hip-hop/folk treatment with a jacked-up bluesy raga-rock riff. It was a total crowd pleaser, coming about halfway through the impeccably paced show, and launched a segue into some of his more overtly hip-hop and funk material, in which he draws upon the traditions of James Brown, Michael Jackson and Prince and proves himself their equal in terms of the funk, the showmanship, and the moves.
He touched on a few numbers from “Sea Change,” largely regarded as the prequel to “Morning Phase,” and then segued into a generous set of songs, including the anthemic “Heart Is a Drum,” given a bit of a boost by a more galloping rhythm courtesy of Waronker. Versions of “Say Goodbye” and “Waking Light” were also highlights, and if this didn’t have thousands going home to download the new record, well then, I’m at a total loss. The live versions were even more textural and three dimensional, and obviously more groove-oriented than the originals. Oh, please, please, please, Beck, I hope you’re recording these concerts for an eventual live album.
For the last few numbers and encores, Beck returned to his more upbeat, funk and party tunes, bringing the night to a peak, and a close, with the delirious hit, “Where It’s At,” with its classic audience participation lines, “bottles and cans, clap your hands” and “got two turntables and a microphone.”
He got so much else, too. He played Neil Young-like harmonica (with occasional Sonny Terry-like accents) several times, and he’s trusting his affecting natural voice more than in the past, where he relied more on filters and processing. The result just adds to the quality of intimacy and vulnerability, even when he’s performing on a stadium-like stage before approximately 5,000 concertgoers.
Not to be overlooked was a terrific, half-hour opening set by Sean Lennon’s new band, Ghosts of a Saber-Toothed Tiger, or GOASTT. Throughout the venue, you could just feel and hear people being stunned at how much Lennon has grown up to look and sound eerily like his dad. Some of the numbers had the musical invention of Beatles tunes; others had the acerbic quality of John Lennon solo tracks; others split the difference in the tradition of Plastic Ono Band, a group whose legacy he carries on with his mother, Yoko Ono. There’s no doubt that many went home that night or the next day and downloaded GOASTT’s new album, to see just where Lennon is heading.
At the risk of overlooking a few shows, in my (gasp!) 30-year career of covering the live music scene in the Berkshires, I have to give credit to MASS MoCA for staging most or all of the very best shows during this post-Music Inn, post-Tanglewood Popular Artists Series (for the most part) era. Patti Smith, Wilco, and now Beck rank at the very top of the all-time greatest Berkshire concerts of our time. Each one so different from the other, yet all united by brilliant passion, creativity, virtuosity, intelligence, musicianship, and that something extra that truly makes them artists – and what could be more appropriate than seeing the greatest artists of our time in the glorious setting of Joe’s Field or the Concert Courtyard at MASS MoCA, which has to be the world’s greatest all-around cultural laboratory and presenting venue.
They’ve always told me I should have been around in the 1970s for the heyday of the Music Inn in Lenox – and yeah, the Boss, the Band, Bob Marley, Lou Reed and the like – that must’ve been pretty pretty spectacular. But I’m not sure I would trade it for Beck, Patti Smith, Wilco, the dozens of other terrific acts that’ve been presented at Solid Sound and Freshgrass festivals, as well as in the Hunter Center, to say nothing of the Bang on a Can Summer Festival concerts.
Bring us a real David Byrne concert one of these days, and there’ll be no contest.
Seth Rogovoy has been writing about the popular music scene in the Berkshires for the last 30 years.