By Mark Guarino
Ask any actor and they’ll tell you a cardinal rule of the theatre is don’t share the stage with animals or little kids for this simple reason: anytime and always they’ll upstage you.
But what about puppets?
Six of them — well, marionettes, really — hogged the spotlight when Beck headlined the UIC Pavilion Saturday. Dressed like and mimicking Beck and his five-member band, the miniature foam and wooden stand-ins followed a theme that’s been in Beck’s music since the mid-1990’s: artifice as fun.
The one-hour, 25-minute show hopscotched genres, from digital noise to country blues. Beck kicked off the night with “Loser,” his signature slacker anthem, but as soon as that was out of the way, he got down to more serious business. Songs about heartache and murder followed, but their themes could be easily missed. That’s because the puppets, performing behind the band but projected onto a single wall-sized video screen, became the real stars of the show while the rest of the performers shuffled to the background, playing human-sized lackeys. In shifting focus from real people to fake, Beck proved it doesn’t matter who is performing as long as the music keeps everyone engaged.
If there was a bit of déjà vu, it’s because we’ve seen some of this before. Beck toured last fall with “Guero” (Interscope), an album of death and despair dressed in electronic trickery, samples and fuzz guitars. One year later is a new album, “The Information” (Interscope), a lesser effort but with the same themes. Saturday’s show was in step with his previous stop in Chicago, last year in September at the Riviera. As Beck alternated between the dense new songs with darkening moods, he worked hard to keep an ironic distance. But even the puppets could jumpstart downers like “We Dance Alone,” yet maybe that’s an unfair comparison to their competition off “Guero.” One year later, those songs still sound fresh.
One bit was so good from last time, it was recycled: While Beck rotated through four solo acoustic songs — from a cover of “Do You Realize?” by The Flaming Lips to a de-funkified “Debra” — the band huddled around a table to dine, their silverware and bowls and plates soon becoming useful percussive tools. By the end, Beck joined in (he played a plastic sausage) and the cacophony, as silly as it looked, sounded pretty brilliant.
The puppets shadowed every move. In fact, the puppets starred in their own video featuring iconic Chicago totems like the Harry Carey statue, the Weiner Circle, the Alley and the puppets singing songs by Chicago, you know, the band. On “Girl,” a summery pop song sung from a stalker’s perspective, the puppets took over the cameras and turned them on their human counterparts. It was the only time we saw the musicians’ faces on screen.
Beck kept hiding. On “1000BPM,” he entered wearing a bear suit, rapping into a microphone while rolling around on the floor, a host content to let the party go on without letting anyone know he was present The music was not as elusive, it burst front and center with popping basslines, grumbling guitar lines and bashing drums. Upstaging your show with alternate versions of yourself is a sure way to make sure old songs don’t sound stagnant, but it also makes you wonder: who’s controlling whom?