Live Wire

Celebrity Theatre
February 20, 1997

Beck's not himself these days. The stage-frightened, rain-soaked, coffee-house kitten has turned into a blow-dried lion in white polyester. The muttering beatnik is now a rock star. This is the new Beck. Hear him roar.

"Owwwww! Y'all lookin' sexy!"
Beck was half right. About 2,000 among the capacity crowd at the 4,000-seat Celebrity Theatre were in full effect with high-dollar hip-hop gear, retro smoking jackets and slick club threads. The other half looked like they'd gotten lost on their way to the Tool concert at Mesa Amphitheatre, but that's AZ for ya. Beck was no slouch himself in that leisure suit. Fresh, baby. Old school. And he was frontin' a five-piece--bass, guitar, 'boards, drums and a deejay--with the L.A. hipster horn trio Brass Menagerie on the side. The band was tight, and sounded like it looked--a gene splice of the Boogie Knights, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the Beastie Boys (late Paul's Boutique, early Check Your Head era, jamming in an East Village loft).

The hepcat of the hour, though, was L.A.'s emissary of cool. Beck. The man. The myth. The living legend. The king of postmodern pop, where appropriation is the coin of the realm. Beck bit stage mannerisms and moves by everyone from James Brown to Johnny Cash, plus countless, nameless rap MCs and tiki-toned lounge lizards.

Technically, Beck can't really rap, just like he can't really break-dance or do the funky chicken. He's got the skills of a white guy who spent a lot of time in front of a mirror, trying to imitate what he saw and heard on the streets and the screens until he possessed a passable mimicry. But Beck doesn't get over with just skills--or songs--anymore. Now he gets over with Attitude. Yeyah. Capital A. Now let me hear you say it again. "Attitude." There, that's the way I like it.

The Beck that played Celebrity Theatre was not the Beck of Lollapalooza '95, his last performance in Arizona. He seems to have undergone a transformation between Mellow Gold and Odelay. Maybe Beck got on Prozac, or maybe he just took a look around and said to himself, "You know what? I'm a superstar, and I'm starting to like it."

For whatever reason, the shy boy is now a showboat. From the opening riff of "Devil's Haircut," his first song, through the extended encore mania of "Where It's At" (preceded by a impressive display of turntable pyrotechnics by DJ Swamp), Beck worked his fans like a champion. And when he jaunted down the backstage ramp and out of sight, with his band and handlers in tow and a cheering crowd on his side, it was like Hulk Hogan leaving the arena after taking out Randy Savage with a pile driver at the bell. Beck's rep as a conservative live artist lay heaving and defeated on the mat.

But at what price? Musically, Beck's best moments came when he cut the act, the band took a break, and he played solo (just a harp and guitar) versions of "Asshole" and a glorious hillbilly jam called "One Foot in the Grave." His low point was a crowd-pleasing rendition of Mellow Gold's sleeper megahit "Loser," which almost always disappoints in concert live, because, again, Beck doesn't have a lot of flow on the mike. The middle ground of his generous, 90-minute set consisted of close-to-the-album versions of tracks on Odelay ("Hot Wax," "Lord Only Knows," etc.). That and a lot of shtick that's a long way from "just two turntables and a microphone."

--David Holthouse

The Les Payne Project/
Trunk Federation
CD-release party
Hollywood Alley
February 22, 1997

At most CD-release parties, the music gets lost in the celebration. At Alias Records' fete for the release of Trunk Federation's The Infamous Hamburger Transfer, it remained to be seen whether the group could escape taking a back seat to its own party. After all, it isn't every show that you have commemorative Trunk Federation CD-size cookies and Trunk lead vocalist Jim Andreas glad-handing the crowd three hours before showtime.

Shortly after the buffet table at the foot of the Hollywood Alley stage was cleared, the Les Payne Project began feeding the throng a steady diet of wit and whimsy. Unlike most abrasive guitar-and-drum duos whose only objective is illustrating how two guys can make the noise of six, the Les Payne Project relies far more on humor and vocal harmony. Each number begins like a multitracked poetry slam and ends up like a grungier version of De La Soul, with perfectly syncopated rhythm guitar provided by James Karnes.

Transcendent moments included the one-man band called "Fuckin' A," who guested behind the drums, played the guitar and sang a song about how he had "rock 'n' roll in his veins." Ironically, Mr. A plays bass in a local unit called Reuben's Accomplice, bass being the only instrument he didn't try to tackle in his one-song set. The Project returned to the stage wearing bloodied butcher smocks and clutching congratulatory bouquets for Mr. A and Sara, the Les Payne Dancer. And like gracious guests, LPP paid homage to the hosts, vocally aping Jason Sanford's guitar lines on a mini-rendition of "Beanie's Soft Toy Factory."

Any good cheer from the Paynes' painless set quickly dissipated with the emergence of Trunk's Alias labelmates, Knapsack. Looking like auditioners for Powder II, the skinheaded quartet from California persisted on tuning up ad nauseam, losing any possible momentum during its filibuster set. "It's a party, for one thing. lt's rock 'n' roll, for another, not fuckin' 'Rhapsody in Blue,'" a patron was heard muttering. Judging by the tepid applause, if the buffet table had still been out, Knapsack would certainly have been wearing most of the vittles.

Trunk Federation festooned the stage with its arsenal of lights in about the time it took Knapsack to prep for one number. All the trademark Trunk trappings were hauled out of storage for this one. The standard Xmas lights, the Lite Brites spelling out "Pow!", rotary fans blowing glitter shavings onto the stage and acid blotter colors projected toward Chris Kennedy's drum riser, making him look like he just stepped off the cover of Cream's Disraeli Gears. Yet the usual spectacle seemed a secondary concern; the majority of the people in the audience were busy comparing the new CD to the act they've known for years.

Loyal fans were at a crossroads. The songs they've heard being stretched into shape live since Trunk's inception are now frozen for posterity like a colored chalk drawing sprayed with fixative; one senses people are feeling more than a little possessive about those songs. "What about the second single--they didn't include either song," wondered one fan aloud. And for Trunk, the reverse is true; now it has to perform two-year-old material it may be tired of. Note how the band's first single, "Jello," changed to "Gelatin" on the advance CD and now is listed as "Edible" on the final product, as if the group were trying to take the spotlight off one of its most popular songs.

Possibly the best Trunk Federation show this writer has ever witnessed was one in which the band did all the songs it had dropped from its live show six months before. Possibly because the band worried the tunes wouldn't go over well, Trunk attacked those songs as if to prove they were wrong for not playing them anymore. It was breathtaking, and some of those songs did make their way back into the set as a result.

No such urgency was unleashed last Saturday night, but if it had, it would've been uncalled for. It was a party, after all, judging by the kiddy crown party hats the band broke out during a surprise cover of Devo's "The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise," featuring the Les Payne Project on background vocals. Also premiered was a feisty new song, "Typical Migraine," which proved the Federation is not about to rest on its laurels. Still, the biggest applause of the night came after the set, when Jim and Mark Frostin asked the crowd, "Who wants stickers?" and began handing out singles and souvenirs.

--Serene Dominic

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