Union Chapel – 7/7/13
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…” So begins Beck’s sermon before the select few fortunate enough to snag tickets to this “special acoustic performance”, tacked on to follow his Song Reader jaunt at The Barbican.
Dapper in a dark suit and Stetson, and armed with his guitar and a full arsenal of harmonicas, tonight he’s flanked by bassist Rory McCarthy and pianist Vincent Taurelle. And for two hours the three of them treat us to a leisurely amble through that staggering back catalogue, all the way from Mellow Gold’s “protest song” ‘Pay No Mind’ to Song Reader’s ‘Rough On Rats’, taking in fan favourites like ‘Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometimes’ and harmonica-led hoedown ‘One Foot In The Grave’ along the way.
It’s no surprise that it’s a set heavy with songs from Sea Change and Mutations, as it’s the material that lends itself most naturally to pared-back performances like these. The tear-stained country and western of ‘The Golden Age’ seems infused with extra solemnity by the Union Chapel’s natural acoustics, and the ramshackle, finger-picked waltz of ‘Dead Melodies’ positively glows in these surroundings. But even predominantly electronic tracks reveal new riches when taken back to basics; recent single ‘Defriended’, for example, which is actually surprisingly moving when shorn of its glitches and tics.
This gig was only announced a month ago, and there’s definitely an air of the impromptu in tonight’s performance, most memorably in the Korg mishap that inspires a “cha cha cha” version of ‘Debra’, complete with improvised lyrics about Barbados and piña coladas. It’s also evident in the winningly-shambolic ‘Billie Jean/Get It On’ mash-up before the encore, featuring Beck’s young son Cosimo on tambourine (and who, with impeccable comic timing, looks downcast at the “the kid is not my son” line).
The only weak moment comes when Bobby Gillespie arrives on stage during the encore, to duet on Hank Williams’ ‘You Win Again’ and The Rolling Stones’ ‘Dead Flowers’: while Gillespie’s strung-out drawl suits the chemically-enhanced psychedelia of Primal Scream, here it jars horribly with Beck’s warming baritone. But it’s just one blip in a set veritably strewn with musical highlights, engaging anecdotes and effortless showmanship, and it’s swiftly followed by a rabble-rousing rendition of ‘Where It’s At’.
While tonight’s gig might not have had the cachet of the celebrity love-in at the Barbican, to see an artist of this calibre in a setting this intimate was a privilege that I’m pretty sure none of us would swap.