By Mark Guarino
Playfully filling his albums with robot noises and gonzo song breaks, Beck Hansen might seem like an unlikely candidate as the new generation’s Bob Dylan, but as he gets older (he’s 32), it’s becoming clear it’s more than a fair stretch.
Over eight albums, Beck continually jumped genres with a wicked sense of wonder plus wordplay veering from opaque to obvious. His new album — “Sea Change” (Geffen), a set of luxuriant cosmic country songs staring blankly at loss and detachment — is already being described as his “Blood On the Tracks,” Dylan’s 1975 album detailing his divorce.
The Beck/Bob connection deepens with Beck’s current tour alongside the Flaming Lips, the Oklahoma City band that, over 20 years, keeps rising up from the underground to make orchestral pop jewels, peaking with their most recent album, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” (Warner Bros.). Enlisting the Lips is right in step with Dylan’s history too, when he picked powerhouse bands to back him on the road, from The Band in 1965 and 1974, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in 1987 and the Grateful Dead the same year.
The tour’s arrival Friday at the Chicago Theatre — the second night of a 12-date run around the country — was a feast of styles and emotions, spiked with a feeling in the air that this was an expert match.
The Lips opened the show with a 45-minute set with all the trappings of past tour stops: a dozen dancing roadies in furry animal costumes, confetti, overhead video art, sailing balloons, mirrorballs the size of armchairs and leader Wayne Coyne squeezing his voice through a megaphone. The big top excess framed their songs, just as frothy with big choruses, loud drums and abundant synthesizers. Even though the lyrics tugged with death and mortality with childlike fragility, the sound boomed with celebration. Coyne roused the crowd from their seats with whatever he could muster as if his band’s mission was to cheerlead the art of feeling alive.
Following up with just guitar, harmonica and keyboard, Beck took the audience on the same journey, but down a tightly-focused funnel. “After a spectacle like that I guess all you can do is to bring it down to fingerpicking,” he explained. By himself, he revisited his early years as a streetcorner blues boy, puffing into his harp (“One Foot in the Grave”) and shuffling his feet.
Even though he’s best known for resurrecting styles of music older than his audience, Beck sounded most comfortable into his newer songs, tuneful but with tough introspection and battle scars. He strummed the lush, ivory chords of “Guess I’m Feelin’ Fine,” and later, mid-way through “The Golden Age,” the black scrim behind him revealed the Lips, plus an additional drummer and keyboardist.
Surprisingly, the pairing left Coyne in the background where he served as the group’s merry prankster, illuminating the crowd with high-powered flashlights, but hardly playing an instrument. The real asset was Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd. On keyboard, guitar and occasionally drums, he draped Beck’s newest songs in a twilight mood. On “All in Your Mind,” Beck handed the song over to him as he colored in the space with the ghostly licks of his pedal steel guitar.
Aside from a few robotic dance moves and one song performed in a glow-in-the-dark suit, Beck restrained his inner super freak, even bypassing the funk from his last album, except one (“Get Real Paid”). Friday was strictly about the songs — even the older ones. He and the Lips toughened up classics from his cut and paste days (“Loser,” “Devil’s Haircut”), and for “Where It’s At,” Beck and Coyne waltzed up the aisle, returning wearing each other’s concert T-shirts.
The best picture of this marriage was when Beck, Coyne and Drozd stood alone in the dark for “Round the Bend.” Beck moaned, Drozd struck shimmering notes from his pedal steel and Coyne stood on a chair swinging a work light around his head like he was showering incense. It was their church.