How did Beck, slacker hero, become arguably the greatest rock star Generation X has yet produced? His 90-minute concert on Friday at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium certainly begged the question. Armed with the most fetching material from his current album, "Odelay," the 26-year-old genre-masher confidently charmed the capacity crowd of mainly preteen to thirtysomething fans.
On record, Beck alchemizes garage-rock, art-rock, funk, blues, country, hip-hop, folk, noise, samples and odd verbal bits. The quirky hook and mellow groove of his 1994 hit single "Loser" proved this eccentric style had commercial possibilities, but his early work wasn't always so captivating, and his live performances were equally erratic.
But nothing was tentative about Friday's show, partly because "Odelay" represents the best integration to date of Beck's myriad influences. "Odelay" is dense and complex, yet more coherent and poppier than previous efforts. In concert, it sounded even better. Beck and his quartet spun a spry, seamless, even psychedelic blend of samples, live drums, soul-tinged keyboards and offbeat lyrics with blues, rock and country guitar riffs.
Framed by a banner-sized backdrop image of LAX's famous space-age restaurant tower and vintage flashing light boxes, the players were eclectically stylish in their assorted ascots and afros. A rainbow of swirling disco-ball lights periodically speckled the performers and the audience. Wearing a dark three-piece suit, tie and cobalt blue shirt, playing guitar and harmonica, Beck made an unlikely--but convincing--soul shouter, alternately crooning and shrieking with expert control.
He mocked conventional performance practices just as he subverts pop forms, mugging shamelessly, busting his best robot-dance moves in sync with the band, and name-checking local neighborhoods: "Glendora!" "South-Central!" "Silver Lake!"
Despite these tongue-in-cheek antics, Beck's mini-acoustic solo set--certainly by now a well-worn concert staple--was cliche-free, highlighted by the spooky folk-blues "One Foot in the Grave," which Beck performed in high, shrill style of the late blues harmonica great Sonny Terry. Singing a cappella and playing harmonica, he found additional rhythm in the audience's hand claps, then drove the tune to a frenzied finish.
The polished performances infused new life into such older tunes as "Fume," 'Beercan," and "Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs." Sharpening the "Odelay" material posed a tougher challenge, but the players made the trippy "Devils Haircut," the Velvet Underground-esque "Lord Only Knows" and the mind-splitting "Novacane" consistently fresher and more powerful. And liberal doses of guitar dissonance momentarily broke, but never destroyed, the songs' momentum.
No such control was shown by Sukia, the opening act on a bill that also featured Pennsylvania pranksters Ween. Sukia's debut album "Contacto espacial con el tercer sexo," is the first release from the new label owned by the Dust Brothers, the producers of "Odelay."
Intriguing on record, the Camarillo-based quintet recalls Beck's style in its mix of synthesizer noise, spacey vocals, throbbing bass, offbeat samples and extra cheese. But the live performance meandered, upsetting the balance of these elements, and the 30-minute set was rarely compelling.