On Tuesday night, Beck played up in North Adams at Mass MoCA — or, as it could have been named, Northampton West, since countless locals had made the trek: musicians, professors, bartenders, filmmakers, deejays, poets, painters, parents and kids, all familiar faces from town and all excited Beck fans, staking their turf on the museum’s crowded back lawn.
At one point during the concert, Beck asked, “How many people are here from Boston?” The response was good, but I wish he’d followed up with “How many people are here from Northampton?” because the whoop would surely have been bigger.
Beck played a surprise small-room show at the Iron Horse back in 2003, but the only time I’ve gotten to see him was on the H.O.R.D.E. tour in 1997, at Great Woods, on a bill with Neil Young, Soul Coughing and others. He was still touring for his mega-smash “Odelay” album; I remember him in a suit doing karate kicks and James Brown slides — he was in “total entertainer” mode, focusing on his playful, upbeat side.
Beck’s latest record is the mellow and lush “Morning Phase,” so I went in assuming the show might be in that vein — instead he kicked off the night like it was still 1997, beginning with one of his galvanizing “Odelay” hits, “Devil’s Haircut.”
The mammoth video screen behind him and his six-piece backing band filled with jittery images of red numbers (reminiscent of both the “Lost” doomsday clock and something from a sinister “Sesame Street”). The chorus kicked in with its '60s go-go beat; dancers left their lawn chairs behind.
The 21-song set (with three more for the encore) included something from every one of Beck’s major-label releases (except “Mutations”) and even threw in the just-voice-and-harmonica blues “One Foot In the Grave” from his early indie days; Beck hopped around the stage, hyperventilating into his mouth harp and singing with fervor about a dead hobo, Satan and running out of mayonnaise.
His star-studded backing band consisted of Smokey Hormel and Jason Falkner on guitars, Roger Joseph Manning Jr. on keys and percussion, Gus Seyffert on multiple instruments, Justin Meldal-Johnsen on bass and Joey Waronker on drums — basically the same team that recorded his 2002 “Sea Change” album.
Beck told the sprawling audience he wanted to play some songs from that record to celebrate this rare reunion, and “Lost Cause” and “Paper Tiger” were highlights of the show. The former was shimmery, delicate and beautiful, with one of Beck’s most warmly melancholy melodies; the latter was a slow jam with a lonely epic atmosphere, like a funky trudge across shifting desert sands. Meldal-Johnsen threw in some super-groovy bass licks.
“I can’t believe you all came!” Beck told the crowd a couple times during the show, thanking them for making it out on a Tuesday night. “We’re going to play a semi-long set because we don’t get out here that often.”
There was a healthy helping of songs from the new record, including the gorgeous “Blackbird Chain,” which shifted in and out of waltz-time in a gently psychedelic mood.
Beck seemed almost apologetic playing the mellower new tunes. The first batch fell in the set after the energetic opening half-hour; he told the crowd he wanted to do some songs for those sitting on the hill “picnicking yonder” in the bucolic setting, but promised they’d get rowdy again.
Sure enough, some guys nearby began bellowing “‘Loser!’ ‘Loser!’” — the title of Beck’s debut MTV smash from 1993 — and coincidentally it was the next song on the set list. The animated frontman aimed to please, even “resurrecting” another old “Odelay” hit especially for this tour, “The New Pollution.”
It all worked. The pretty stuff and the party stuff.
“My name is Beck and I like to rap” he said in a goofy voice while stalking the stage, introducing “Hell Yes,” full of video game missile noises and fuzzed-out bass so low you could feel it in your chest. He spat out the chorus: “I’m cleanin’ the floor / my beat is correct.”
“E-Pro,” dedicated to the people he saw attending a My Little Pony convention earlier on the tour, ended the main set, shaking the surrounding mountains with thundering electric guitars and a crowd sing-along on the wordless chorus.
My favorite part of the show was getting introduced to Beck songs I’d somehow slept on during the last 15 years, like the twisting new-wave pulse of “Gamma Ray,” the very poppy “Think I’m In Love” (which turned into a cover of Donna Summer’s mesmerizing “I Feel Love”) and the fox trot noir of “Modern Guilt” — a groove so cool it didn’t matter that Beck flubbed the lyrics, sharing a sudden, chuckling mid-verse realization with the crowd: “I don’t even know this song.”
The encore brought out fan favorites “Sexx Laws,” “Debra” and “Where It’s At.” It was a warm, summer night with only a gentle haze of cloud spots in the sky — the Big Dipper hung brightly right over the stage. Earlier in the show Beck had said, “We couldn’t have asked for a better night.” Exactly.
Sean Lennon’s band The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger started off the show with an eight-song set of psych-rock with big riffs and dark whimsy, but my favorite opening act of the evening was the train that moseyed back and forth on the woodsy tracks next to the stage as the early birds flocked to the grounds. It blasted its horn, turning everyone into gleeful 8-year-olds, pumping their arms to get the engineer to do it again.
Ken Maiuri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.