Beck Basks in Bittersweet Majesty With the LA Phil at Hollywood Bowl Symphonic Show: Concert Review (2024)

Soy un ganador — this was likely the sentiment of everyone who caught Beck‘s performance with the LA Phil Saturday night. It represented an apotheosis of the kind of pop-star-at-the-pops event that the Hollywood Bowl was veritably made for, with Beck going mostly off-brand as a live artist to emphasize the most languid parts of his catalog for maximal symphonic synergy. You might be tempted to call it an “only in L.A.” night if you didn’t know that the show is one of seven Beck is doing with resident orchestras across the country this month, which effectively made the Philharmonic a pickup band for the occasion. Sharing is OK; other cities and other coasts deserve a piece of this big a musical win, too.

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Seeing Beck with an orchestra seems more inevitable than it would be with almost anyone else, even though he hasn’t previously indulged in it much as a concert performer. His father, David Campbell, is one of the more famous orchestral arrangers in rock circles, well beyond his work with his son. (A quick search of the Variety review archives reminds us Campbell did the arrangements for the Who orchestral tour that passed through the Bowl five years ago, and conducted strings at a Dave Matthews Band concert at the venue the year before that, just for starters, on top of all the recorded work he’s done). Campbell did not conduct on Saturday night — that honor belonged to Steven Reineke — but his presence was felt in arrangements Beck said were largely lifted from what was put down on record in the past, especially for the twin-like albums “Morning Phase” (2014) and “Sea Change” (2002). The senior Campbell is also said to have overseen all the new arrangements that were created for this tour, as well. In the world of symphonically enhanced rock, putting the Phil’s spotlight on work that Beck has with his father probably counts as the closest thing we’re going to get to “blood harmony.”

There is some very limited precedent for Beck doing this: In 2008, he devoted the second half of an headlining set at the Bowl to eight songs that featured David Campbell conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. The 20-song set Beck did with the Phil this weekend (not counting an orchestra-free three-number encore segment) more than doubled the amount of time that he was previously able to devote to his symphonic side in a show. Thus was provided the opportunity to luxuriate in the half of Beck’s brain that, on any standard tour, is always going to be relegated to the realm of recessive genealogy. The strengths of Saturday’s show suggested that this slow-churning stuff might even represent his better half; it almost felt like a letdown, relatively, when he threw out “Devil’s Haircut” and “Loser” at show’s end as bones for the crowd. (Emphasis on the almost; no real complaints about going out with a bang.)

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Not much of the material Beck was focusing on could really be called celebrative. Following the introductory instrumental, “Cycle,” the artist’s first vocal number was the title track of “The Golden Age,” which was most of the mainstream public’s first introduction to the idea that Beck, as a musician, could be a depressive guy. “Let the golden age begin,” he crooned in the first verse, but less as a promise than the faint hope of some kind of remedy for “barely get(ting) by.” But as a scene-setter, then and now, “The Golden Age” wasn’t and isn’t really a downer. This and other modern classics from his more contemplative albums have tended toward a low-key grandeur that makes it hard to separate the melancholy from the majesty. And why separate them, as a listener? Hearing songs like that and “Round the Bend” at the Bowl, you experience the thrill of that sweeping quality, without ever quite knowing what’s around the bend that you’re being swept toward. One of David Campbell’s great gifts as an arranger is his skill for ear-teasing portent, which may be easier when you’ve got songs as ambiguously grand as Beck’s.

The subtitle for the concert could have been “Summertime Sadness,” if that wasn’t already taken. If you’re into embracing these mixed emotions — the sense of ennui somehow mixed up with a sense of wonder — then the early peak of the setlist might be “Lonesome Tears.” It’s a song that has some pretty strong emotional spoilers in its title, but there’s a weirdly tempered exhilaration to be had in experiencing the whole extended climax of the song, which in concert had Beck stepping back to let the 80-strong orchestra proceed through spirals; whether we were going up or down, it was difficult to say.

The most moving songs in Beck’s orchestral repertoire tend to begin with strings and add brass at a key dramatic chorus moment. But some of the material offers simpler pleasures without those dramatic dynamics, especially when Beck moved in on a particular global dialect. “Tropicalia,” a track dating back to 1998’s “Mutations,” lived up to its Brazilian-inspired name, with “Missing,” from 2005’s “Guero,” “one we don’t get to play too often,” also coming through in that vaguely Brazilian vein, perfect for what Beck called “a tropical night” (in the balmy-for-L.A.-after dusk mid-70s).

Similarly, “We Live Again” wasn’t anything but pretty, even if its mortality-themed lyrics can be taken as somber fare. Beck told an amusing story about being confronted with the inspiration for that tune: “I want to dedicate this one to one of my favorite singers who passed away two weeks ago, Francoise Hardy, a great french singer. I listened to her so much around the time when I made ‘Mutations.’ I met her on a French tv show – she pulled me aside; she didn’t speak very much english – and she went, ‘I know you copied my song… This song, “We Live Again,” it’s my song.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, it’s yours.’ For many years on tour, I would put my headphones on on the bus and listen to her records. She was my medicine.”

Beck had indicated in interviews prior to the mini-tour that only his band’s rhythm section would be accompanying the orchestra during the main part of the set, with the full band waiting to come on only for the last few songs. That turned out to not be the case, in the end, as the main set found all four band members on stage — guitarist Jason Falkner, keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., drummer Joey Waronker and bassist Justin Meldal-Johnson. But they knew how to play it subdued; there was no sense of the literal battle of the bands we’ve sometimes heard at the Bowl, when an artist’s usual touring band hasn’t been taught to turn it down to make room for Dudey. (Pardon the colloquialism for Dudamel, or his conducting stand-ins.) The one time the rock ensemble at stage left really kicked it up was during “Paper Tiger,” which was, perhaps not coincidentally, the song Beck chose to play on TV the other day with his band and the 10 or so string players that would fit on the “Jimmy Kimmel Live” soundstage. Reprising it with the full Phil at the Bowl, Beck again had that one begin with just his band before the full complement joined in for the second verse — and he again, as on the talk-show appearance, turned things over to Falkner for some shredding, placing his hand on the guitar’s shoulder during the climactic solo.

As for the songs from his catalog that didn’t demand a full symphonic component, there were different approaches. “Blue Moon” used the strings just as a color, or augmentation, although the Phil’s harpists were in full bloom. There weren’t many of Beck’s more upbeat songs squeezed into the symphonic main set, but the exceptions to that rule were fun — including “Odelay’s” “New Pollution,” which began with a jaunty, almost circus-like fanfare, and “Where It’s At,” where the Phil ultimately let the band take over but added appropriately loud accent marks on the choruses.

“Wave” did suffer just a bit from the reverb on Beck’s vocal being turned up to the point that it sounded like he was singing in the world’s most cavernous bathroom — not a big deal, but something that had the effect of making his performance feel separate from the orchestra’s on an otherwise beautiful tune. Meanwhile, if there were just one number that could be cut from the set, it’d be the middling Colourbox cover “Tarantula,” a repetitious track he cut for the “Roma” soundtrack. That choice wasn’t remotely in the ballpark of the two (count ’em) Scott Walker songs he covered, “It’s Raining Today” and “Montague Terrace (in Blue),” or even the “Eternal Sunshine” soundtrack cut “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime,” which rose to the level of sounding like a “Sea Change”-era original.

Beck Basks in Bittersweet Majesty With the LA Phil at Hollywood Bowl Symphonic Show: Concert Review (4)

At exactly 10:30, Beck gave the orchestra members their leave, explaining that they have to go off the clock after 90 minutes. From there, he made a comedy routine of exploring the suddenly empty stage by himself: “Whose chair should I sit in?… This one’s really warm — those violas, they have a lot of body heat.” Finding that the tympani player had taken off with his mallets rather than leave them behind for Beck’s tomfoolery, the singer pulled out a harmonica for an enthusiastically blowsy solo rendition of “One Foot in the Grave,” then had his band rejoin him for “Devil’s Haircut” and “Loser.” (They apparently had one more penultimate pick planned, summarily canceled when they were reminded of a 10:45 curfew.)

The bulk of the show had consisted of deeply gorgeous stuff, but that hardly represented all the moves in Beck’s playbook. And so it was refreshing to find him, at the end of “Devil’s Haircut,” down on his knees, delivering wanton squalls on an electric guitar that were at odds with the exquisite carefulness of most of what had proceeded. By symphonic standards, the guitar wankery was in bad taste — which was maybe exactly what was needed to cement it at the last minute as, in fact, a rock ‘n’ roll show, after all that useful beauty.

Jessica Pratt, now on a big rise after a 10-year recording career, proved a perfect choice to open the Bowl show — performing music with a continental feel with her small, drumless ensemble and sounding like someone that Beck also would have been influenced by, like Francoise Hardy, if only she were 40 or 50 years older.

Beck Basks in Bittersweet Majesty With the LA Phil at Hollywood Bowl Symphonic Show: Concert Review (5)

Beck’s remaining orchestral dates:

July 10 – Berkeley, California – Greek Theatre (w/ the Berkeley Symphony)
July 23 – Lenox, Massachusetts at Tanglewood (w/ the Boston Pops Orchestra)
July 25 – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at Mann Center (w/ the Philadelphia Orchestra)
July 27 – Vienna, Virginia at Wolftrap (w/ the National Symphony Orchestra)
July 29 – New York, New York at Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall (w/ the Orchestra of St. Luke’s)

Beck and the LA Phil setlist at Hollywood Bowl, July 6, 2024:

The Golden Age
Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime (Korgis cover)
Lonesome Tears
It’s Raining Today (Scott Walker cover)
Blue Moon
Lost Cause
The New Pollution
Tarantula (Colourbox cover)
Round the Bend
Paper Tiger
We Live Again
Montague Terrace (in Blue) (Scott Walker cover)
Waking Light
Where It’s At
One Foot in the Grave (solo)
Devil’s Haircut (without orchestra)
Loser (without orchestra)

Beck Basks in Bittersweet Majesty With the LA Phil at Hollywood Bowl Symphonic Show: Concert Review (2024)
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