When Beck played a rare club date Sunday night at the House of Blues, the difference between perception and reality was a theme, just as it has been throughout his career.
Beck still looked like a young, underfed slacker onstage, but he recalled that he last played New Orleans 20 years ago, betraying his age. He wore his shirt buttoned up to the top under a sport coat and black jeans with reserve and dignity until he danced as if he were ready to start a “Soul Train” line. His lyrics are exactly worded, but his slightly breathy voice gave his vocals a hazy, soft-focus quality.
All of which added richness to a show that was everything fans could ask for — even after dropping $100 to see him in a club environment. Beck honored the quiet side of his catalog, rocked with a rowdy energy and was funky in his stiff, artsy way. When he strung yellow police “crime scene” tape across the front of the stage after a chaotic ending that included slam-dancing guitarists and a bass player spraying a fire extinguisher, nobody felt ripped off.
The show filled in a blank in his scheduling as Beck headlined the ACL Festival in Austin, Texas, on Friday and will do so again this Friday. In Austin, he played a tight set that integrated songs from his recent, quiet “Morning Phase” album with more rocking songs from his earlier records. On Sunday night, he returned to the format of earlier shows on the tour and “opened for himself,” as he put it, playing an acoustic set before a heavier one.
The quiet half-hour opening set was lovely and subtly moved the energy and level of adventure forward. “The Golden Age” and “Blackbird Chain” were simple, slightly psychedelic folk-rock songs that brought to mind Paul McCartney’s and George Harrison’s early ’70s, post-Beatles output. Beck added a short, biting electric guitar solo to the end of “Waking Light” that teased a rise in the electricity, but he then took it back down for an ambient, electronically orchestrated “Blue Moon.” The moon wasn’t blue, he observed when he introduced the song, “but it’s a semi-auspicious moon.”
That kind of deadpan wryness often seems like cleverness for its own sake, a way to say something without committing to it. It is just one of the tricks in Beck’s verbal arsenal, and after “Blue Moon,” he returned to it, announcing, “We could take a conceptual set break” as he and his band switched to electric guitars for the second half of the show.
But because that, along with word-souplike surrealism, has been a part of Beck’s art for so long, it didn’t feel like a distancing device. It certainly didn’t when the band began “Devils Haircut” with startling energy and force. Guitarists jumped with punk enthusiasm, and Beck danced his version of classic R&B singers’ moves with slightly clunky grace.
He reached back to his major-label debut album for “Beercan,” an insertion into the set list that Beck said was inspired by a walk down Bourbon Street on Saturday night. At the end of it, he quoted Sly and the Family Stone’s “Higher,” and live samples of classic songs became a motif for the second half of the show.
He ended “Think I’m in Love” with a minute or two of Donna Summer’s throbbing disco classic, “I Feel Love,” and when he introduced the band at the end of the show, the members led one another into snippets of Van Halen’s “Runnin’ With the Devil” and the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” among others.
The only discouraging word I heard came when the set ended with a raucous, electronically ticking “Timebomb” at 8:48 p.m., a little more than an hour after the show started. “Is that it?” one woman asked those around her. It wasn’t.
Beck returned for a garage-rock take on “Sexx Laws,” with its enigmatic chorus, “I want to defy the logic of all sex laws.” There was no leer in the line, and if there was any lust, it was only at its most academic. Instead, like much of the show, Beck seemed more invested in the joy of rocking than the sentiments in the songs, albeit in a straight-faced way.
The four-song encore included the Princely “Debra,” “Where It’s At,” “Loser” and “E-Pro” with its “na na, na na na na na na” chorus an invitation for an enthusiastic sing-along that the audience took up on its own.
By the end of it, Beck’s inscrutable self remained intact; the stage was a mess, with all three guitarists lying on the ground making occasional guitar noise; and a haze of fire-extinguisher fog slowly settled on the instruments. There was nothing left to do, and the woman who had worried that the show might end too early walked out ecstatic.