Beck Plays Energetic, Sophisticated Set at Mountain Jam
We've seen some truly amazing music at Mountain Jam so far, from Jason Isbell's heart-wrenching set to Courtney Barnett's howling rock. (Even Train's Led Zeppelin cover set was pretty fun.) But for full on entertainment value, no one beats Beck.
On the most basic level, it was exciting to hear songs that were often meticulously developed in a studio environment come to life so viscerally via a five-piece band. Thanks in part to very carefully arranged backing tracks, the songs were fully rounded out and powerful. The riff on "E-Pro" could have sawed a skyscraper in half. "Dreams," the single Beck released last summer, was pure thrill. (Oddly, he didn't play "Wow," the single he released just three days ago.) On "Que Onda Guero," he proved he can still rap and flail his arms like a lanky, funky nerd.
But even with all the energy, the performances stayed true to the compositional elegance of the original tracks. (Beck can write a bridge better than anyone. Every time we hear the "Cut me down to size" bridge of "Blue Moon," we wanna cry.) "Sexx Laws," for instance, has a ton going on behind the scenes, full of layers of harmony and sudden modulations. Their cover of "Raspberry Beret" moved lightly despite its musical volume. The band owned it. It sounded like it could have been a cut off Guero.
Subtle musical sophistication isn't the only thing Beck has in common with Prince. Beck presents himself like the pop legend he deserves to be. He wears a wide-brimmed hat and a wine colored shirt and suit jacket that place him somewhere between Michael Jackson and Leonard Cohen. (He's got a bit of the dance moves of Jackson and the monotone of Cohen, but then again, not too much of either.) He doesn't use the stage as a place to air out all his new material; he does a set that presents his best and best-known songs pristinely, altered only in that they're bolstered in depth and sheer volume. He's not above doing "Loser," and he does it with gusto, waving his arms in the air.
The couple next to us were basically watching his set because they were Prince fans and heard he was doing a couple covers, but they were thoroughly entertained through the entire run of the show despite not knowing any of his music. This is essentially what makes Beck such a satisfying interpreter of other artists' songs; you know whatever he does, he's going to do his damnedest to make it sound good.
Beck almost seems less like a straight-up artist than just a good host. We felt like he wanted to reach out and touch us. He said he felt really comfortable and wanted to play all night, and even though we're sure he says at every show, we sort of believed him. The thing about the main stage at Mountain Jam is that it's huge. Big headline artists can get swallowed up by it. As an artist, you have to be actively reach out to the faces in the crowd to overcome all that space. That's part of what made Beck's encore version of "Where It's At" such a joyful experience. He skipped around the stage. He sat down on his amps and kicked his feat. In the middle of the song, he introduced each member of his band and let them lead little riffs on David Bowie, Kraftwerk, and more Prince. Then they segued back into "Where It's At" — energetic, precise, perfect.
One artist who also overcame the vastness of the main stage space who is totally worth mentioning here: Nathaniel Rateliff, and his band the Night Sweats. We knew everyone was going to go nuts when the band broke into "S.O.B.," their breakout hit. But it felt particularly special yesterday; the band's vintage '60s soul and Rateliff's gargantuan voice brought some much needed sunshine to a largely overcast day.
The band itself is a blast to watch. Trumpeter Wesley Watkins is a total ball of energy. At one point, Rateliff slammed a tambourine into the ground, making it basically explode. The Night Sweats even sandwiched a rollicking take on the Band's "The Shape I'm In" into the middle of "S.O.B." Rateliff got so worked up, he commanded everyone in the audience to vote for Bernie Sanders, and said he was happy that "after years of frustration touring and nobody giving a sh-- about what we were doing" he'd finally found his audience. We were grateful, too.