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On paper, at least, it sounded magnificent: Beck, the critically acclaimed musician who, two decades ago, survived one-hit wonder-dom and went on to become one of the most lauded acts of his generation, would team up with a slew of equally praised artists for an evening of performances from and inspired by his book/album Song Reader. The album has been released only in sheet music form — in other words, no one has actually heard the songs as they are “supposed” to exist.
Even more promising: The performances would be heard in the majestic and acoustically perfect Walt Disney Concert Hall (backed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and conducted by famed arranger David Campbell — who just happens to be Beck’s father.
However, the result, while mostly very enjoyable, was less than the sum of its parts. At issue: a void of context, such that made the whole night seem disjointed rather than like a puzzle coming together.
In truth, it’s always a challenge to present works that an audience is likely wholly unfamiliar with. Actor and Tenacious D member Jack Black, who emerged later in the show to deliver one of its highlights, the complicated and hilarious “We All Wear Cloaks,” did his best to introduce the night properly by telling the audience that they’d see a series of performances from different personalities.
But sometimes, the heart of those performances just wasn’t there.
Jon Brion, the Renaissance-man musical mastermind, meandered his way through “Just Noise,” attempting to lend it gravitas but falling flat on delivery. Childish Gambino — the nom de music of Community funnyman Donald Glover — proved beyond a doubt that he is a singer as well as a rapper, with his stellar tenor reaching the top of the hall on the soulful, heartbreaking “Please Leave the Light on When You Go.” Yet, it sounded as if he and the orchestra were stumbling over each other rather than collaborating on the tune. And Moses Sumney, an audience favorite, seemed to be making up “Title of This Song” as he went along, fumbling with his sampler even while delivering jaw-dropping vocals. Even Beck — who wrote the songs, for heaven’s sake — didn’t seem wholly on his game: on a solo acoustic “America, Here’s My Boy,” he clearly missed some of his guitar fingerings and appeared unsure of its structure.
The night did have its more inspired moments, too. “Wave,” a non-album song that Beck played with the orchestra, was properly stunning with its movement and verve. Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker looked comfortably loose during his rendition of “Why Did You Make Me Care,” spilling himself all over the stage and nearly into the audience with a confidence that many of the performers didn’t have. A playful Philharmonic-only take on “Mutilation Rag,” a piece written initially for piano, found the two sides of the orchestra humorously warring against each other, with subtitles about the battle projected on the wall above them. And Jenny Lewis‘ duet with actress Anne Hathaway for “Last Night You Were a Dream” found the two women playing against each other with a comfortable familiarity.
Actually some of the main highlights came from the non-musical performances: between nearly every song was a spoken-word interstitial delivered by both those known for such oratory (comedian Tig Notaro) and the unexpected (food writer Jonathan Gold). Their stories all touched on the role of music in performers’ lives, some directly referencing Beck (Gold told a hilarious story of arguing with a friend over Beck’s talent in his early years, though it kind of came off like an eulogy), and others just riffing, like Notaro’s story about talking a crush into playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” in sixth grade, when the bell rang just at the end of the embarrassing choral section of the Rolling Stone’s song start. A mini-film by Christian Robinson was an animated joy, with colorful renditions of children’s responses to various questions about music (Interviewer: “What do your parents listen to?” Kid: “Classical music…like Madonna.”)
Still, even with the final group performance of “Do We, We Do,” a celebratory, upbeat song with an audience call-and-response that had the Disney Hall roaring, it seemed like the evening could have gone in other, more cohesive directions — such as a through line of Beck performing with his guests, or some reinterpretations of past material spattered in to give the audience something familiar to hold on to. A bold and valiant experiment nonetheless, just not one whose results were as atom-smashing as expected.
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