Solitary Refinement

Stunning one-man set as the eclectic troubadour of cool goes back to his folk-blues roots

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Beck

THE APOLLO THEATRE, MANCHESTER

SUNDAY APRIL 27, 2003

To detractors, last year’s stripped-down, gloomily wonderful Sea Change was merely another smoke bomb in the Beck armoury. After the preening Princely funk of 1999’s Midnite Vultures and the lugubrious country blues of Mutations (1998), was this just another stylistic detour for this most restless of musicians? In truth, the simple acoustic folk of Sea Change is where Beck Hansen’s true spirit lies. Though the album itself picks over the debris of a doomed relationship to uncharacteristically direct effect, stylistically at least, this is how he first headed out, mining a deeply unfashionable folk-blues seam around the coffee bars of New York and LA in the late ’80s. If Beck has a spiritual Mecca, it’s somewhere between the Delta cotton fields and Greenwich Village, between Avalon and Bleecker.

Billed somewhat loosely as solo acoustic fare (during the course of the evening he digs out electric guitar, Hammond organ, beat-box, harmonium and tape loops), tonight’s show is a return to last year’s one-man trawl of the US, prior to his more publicised stint with Flaming Lips as backing band. Grabbing him backstage 15 minutes before showtime, Beck admits to Uncut: “You get tied to the people in a band. I was always most comfortable playing by myself. It was something I felt I could use and manipulate. I’ve always wanted to do this, but we never had time.” On stage, it soon becomes apparent that the black clouds that glowered over Sea Change have somewhat dispersed. Over the course of two hours, our protagonist is often inspired, brilliant and atypically brimming with anecdotal bonhomie. There’s even an absurdly surreal moment where, attempting to tune a rotten piano, he breaks into Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River”in such a far-flung falsetto he nearly brings the house down.

In between, there’s much to admire, not least Beck’s singing. On record often a lazy rumble filtered through a sonic maze, tonight he comes over all throaty and deep, like a boho Scott Walker or wounded Leonard Cohen. His guitar-playing too, often buried under studio sleight-of-hand, is something to behold.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it’s the recent stuff that resonates deepest. After strapping on acoustic and harmonica?

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