Beck fights indie rock’s diminishing presence at Outside Lands

Outside Lands / FilmMagic.com / Courtesy
Outside Lands/ FilmMagic.com/Courtesy
Outside Lands / FilmMagic.com / Courtesy

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Friday night’s headlining slot set an R&B sex symbol who frequently ranks among the world’s most popular artists against a man best known for robbing Beyoncé of the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. It was a bold move on Outside Lands’ part, to say the least, especially since Beck stood this year as one of the last remaining fixtures of the white male indie rock hegemony that has dominated the festival for years. Yet by the end of his set, it became abundantly clear why the festival has a decade-plus-long relationship with the singer.

As far as rock stars go, Beck must be one of the most supremely awkward ones out there. He’s certainly more likely to adjust his pants onstage than he is to bust a move. His showmanship consists mainly of taking small leaps to the side with caution and sliding back and forth with uncertainty. Every single member of his band looked more poised to be the star of the show than he did.

But between the brightly coloured flashing geometric visuals that played out in the background and the charisma of both the band and, strangely, Beck himself, the show rounded itself out as a delight. While Beck’s appearance at the festival was technically part of his Colors tour in support of his latest album, throughout the night he ran all the way back through his more than two-decadeslong discography.

If there was one moment to showcase Beck’s versatility as an artist, it was the rapid transition from “Blue Moon,” a lushly sincere acoustic affair from Morning Phase, to “Dreams,” the sleek and strangely youthful synth-heavy closer of Colors. For the former, Beck and his band closed in around the front of the stage, each with an acoustic guitar in hand. The background visuals ceased and the stage was lit by nothing but a simple yellow-white light from above. The warmth of Beck’s voice filled the field, and for just a moment, his awkwardness vanished entirely. His endearing lack of showmanship was sure to make a comeback as the bandmates returned to their original positions and his voice took on the glassy coolness of a stadium rocker for “Dreams.”

Everything Beck lacks as a dancer and general performer he makes up for with his talent as a guitarist. While Jason Falkner had been showily manning the lead guitars for most of the night, when Beck played alongside him, there was no question as to who was the star of the show. Beck even whipped out his harmonica for a few short moments, showing off his multi-instrumental prowess in what began to feel like the most characteristically Beck moment of the evening.

The set ended with Beck’s greatest hits — what Beck set would be complete, after all, without a crowd howling, “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?” into the night without a trace of irony. As intriguing as it was to see Beck try to play a suave radio-ready hitmaker earlier, nothing could quite beat seeing him seem to come into his own as a bastion of good old-fashioned dad rock.

Beck officially ended his show with a rendition of “Where It’s At,” which was riddled with fresh twists and turns that reinvigorated the performance. He paused first, inexplicably, to call for a moment of silence before announcing that it was time to get back to rocking.

As his band members introduced themselves, they played through covers of songs from New Order’s “Blue Monday” to Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” which served as a glossy cherry on top of the whole affair. The band then meandered back to the familiar sample-heavy trip-hop of “Where It’s At,” closing out the song before collectively shuffling sideways offstage. Any other way they might have exited would have seemed like a blemish on the night’s spirit.

Sannidhi Shukla covers music. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @sannidhishukla.