Saturday, October 11, 2008

Beck & MGMT--Aragon Ballroom, Chicago

Every once in a while we all have an experience that makes us feel a little older. This can happen when we are 10, 30, or 70 years old. And I don’t mean "feel older" in that horrible way that makes Cathy eternally freak out every Sunday in the comics. I only mean that we notice that things are different than they used to be. The Beck concert at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago was such an experience for me.

I took the subway up by myself. I was meeting my wife at the venue because she was coming straight from work. I arrived at the show in what I had been wearing that day--no dress-up for me. This was a Thursday, meaning work again in the morning, so this would be an in and out affair. On the way up to the concert I was talking to some younger guys and we struck up a conversation. "I don’t really know any of Beck's music, but I know that he has been around for awhile and is solid. I like MGMT so I thought I would check it out." I will let this statement speak for itself.

My wife and I opted for the upstairs of the Aragon since it is really just one big room and unless you are there early, you are in a sea of people and rather far back. Nearly all seats were taken in the balcony except for the closest single seat on the upper row of chairs. Sensing possibility, I found a chair hidden in the darkness of the area shaped like an Arabian balcony that overlooks the stage where security stands or presumably sits. The chair matched our row and there was a space missing next to the seat we had, so the security guard had actually stolen it first. I also had to move one of those huge stage fans. With great seats acquired, we sat down to enjoy. Those witnessing my cleverness were in awe and jealous. Sitting is important these days. Unless I am really close and in the frontal energy, I prefer a nice spot where I can sit and see.

Drinks I thought were reasonable at the Aragon. Maybe not so much for beer. (An excited gentleman let the entire restroom know this upon my arrival as he shouted, "Hope y’all are ready fer $7 Miller Lites." Myself, I am never ready for $7 Miller Lites. This gentleman was including his tip in the price.) Liquor drinks were $6, and in this day and age, this seemed like a fair deal, so we got some drinks to sip on with no intention of asking the booze for anything in return.

MGMT was great. They sounded like their album Oracular Spectacular, played songs from the album, and if you like the album, this worked just fine. They didn’t really seem to be having that much fun, though. The guys I met on the subway did not spread their excitement for this band fat enough as the crowd stood and watched for the first half, but by the time they got to the second half of the set, the people were moving and buying into the rock show.

As Beck came on, our area became more crowded. Being next to the aisle and on the far corner, it was a game of angles on whether we had great seats or could not see at all. Luckily, the guy next to me was the kind of fellow that has no problem asking those in front of us standing up or in his way to "fuck off" and move. This was great for me because he did most of the dirty work. The whole "can you dance in your seat if there is someone behind you?" ethical scenario was being played out in full with both sides represented. Cheers, Alan, even though you did make my wife scared to enter into your line of vision at all.

Indeed. Beck came out in baggy black trousers with a big baggy coat and a purple fedora, looking somewhat like a white scarecrow that Fat Farmer John had hung his old clothes on. He started right out with "Loser," either getting it out of the way or to pump up the crowd. Beck was confident, calm, and deliberate the entire night. Gone were the sequins, the dance moves, the puppets, and the dinner tables. The Beck Show Extravaganza had closed for this season. He played his songs. He played them well. He played them back to back, getting a lot of them in. Of course we are there to hear the music. And I do not need the spectacle, nor do I particularly want it. (The best Beck I ever saw was on the Sea Change tour where he just came out and played, baring his soul, and I felt bad for him that he felt he had to encore with a few numbers which included pat dance moves and sing-alongs.)

There were highs to be sure. Live, there is nothing quite like that bottom dropped out, guitar crunching vox sound on his rawer tracks or rap numbers. His set went as one might expect, coming in and out of the genres he has swum in throughout the years. And Beck is a great concert to wonder what song is coming next because of the deep and thick catalog. He played a wide variety of samplings as well as some nice covers (Dylan, Hank, and methinks some Allman Brothers riffs in there somewhere), although not too much from Modern Guilt. And goodness, I do love Beck as a traditional songwriter, so there were a few songs in the setlist that whetted that desire. Beck's band sounded great. His guitarist was fantastic. The commitment to the music instead of show allowed for some great interaction between the band and for some fantastic guitar work. But this no nonsense approach left a little something to be desired. It felt like there was little spontaneity outside of the guitar. As if to say, "Here I am, playing and singing my songs," rather than "Here I am, feeling my songs." Picky, I know, but there is a large difference. I did like the live versions of the songs usually containing samples, and played rather sloppily. Of course, being the Aragon, the sound was absolutely terrible.

All in all, the concert was really good. And Beck is fun to see live. But I still think the best way to listen to Beck is through my stereo. This has not changed since I listened to One Foot In the Grave as a stoned teenager on my car’s tape deck out in a field, in college dancing on a couch to Midnite Vultures, Sea Change on my headphones in a La-Z-Boy, or last week when I listened to Modern Guilt while folding laundry. There is something so personal about his music that translates well when played directly into the days and nights of my life. I have aged, and apparently so has Beck. This concert was all about the songs. Even the stage design was simple (albeit impressive) arrangement of light bulbs. If I am growing old, Beck is good company to be gathering years with. And again, I don’t mean old fogy old. Just "life is moving" old. I have to admit, we left the concert complaining that our ears were ringing. On the way out there was a family of four, the kids being 9 and 12, the parents probably around 35. I asked who the Beck fan was, and it was the dad. Hopefully the guys from the subway will spend a little time with Grandpa Beck now, hearing some of his old stories and tales to be passed on to their children in turn.

--Scott Rudolph

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