By Mark Guarino
To Beck, every object is a musical instrument, every thought is a potential lyric, every rhyme strangely meaningful. His inventiveness thrives on borderlines — the difficult ones separating folk and rap and high satire with serious introspection.
That disparity became very entertaining when the 35-year-old performer played the Riviera Wednesday, the second of two sold-out nights. The one-hour, 25-minute show took place in the context of a funhouse — seven musicians interchanging instruments, shifting personas, and banging, strumming and tweaking a treasure’s chest worth of instruments ranging from a bank of synthesizers and two drum sets to a bullhorn and a dented garbage can.
Despite the constant playfulness, Beck’s most recent music is stark and mature. His latest album, “Guero” (Geffen), has an underlying theme of death and despair. It follows “Sea Change” (Geffen), an album of introspective heartache with songs so beautifully pained, they are best compared to Hank Williams.
His older songs were played to match the mood. With a weary harmonica blowing throughout, “Jack-Ass” became a somber folk song while the faux R&B come-ons of “Nicotine and Gravy” was introduced with a slide guitar and a lazy backdrop, more suited to old-time country.
The middle portion was dedicated to the more somber stuff. Starting out with a solo acoustic cover of “Do You Realize?” by the Flaming Lips (the two toured together a few years back), Beck turned inward with songs from “Sea Change” and “Mutations” (Geffen). Less anyone shed actual tears, his band slowly emerged as comic foils. During “Nobody’s Fault But My Own,” which he sang while playing a pump organ, his bandmates wandered onstage and started building rhythm behind him through stomping feet and clapping hands. Then a table was ushered in and they pretended to dine, clinking goblets of wine and digging into a meal as Beck serenaded. The ruse became musical as the group proved through their dinnerware. Their rattling of forks, knives, plates and bowls made “The Golden Age” sound like it was accompanied by rattling bones.
The show took place under two overlapping screens with continually projected slides of color, geometric designs and, of course, collages of Beck. The visuals created the perfectly disjointed frame for the music.
There was, of course, many hard rock moments, where dense, chugging guitars met squawking electronics, a sound that’s become a signature for Beck considering “E-Pro,” a new song, sounds nearly identical to “Where It’s At,” his groundbreaking hit from 1996. The main difference is his rapping has largely faded from his music. When he did rap, it was on older material that tended to sound dated.
Which turned out to be not a problem since the minor star of the night was a backup dancer dressed like John McEnroe, circa 1980. He embraced his outer geek by break dancing, drumming, parading a series of old school boomboxes on his shoulder and, for “Sexx Laws,” partnering with Beck on a dueling banjos routine that involved miming some very quick picking.
The freak show element was a perfect distraction for songs with much despair underneath. After all, why cry when you can pop and lock?