Review: Beck and friends celebrate ‘Song Reader’ at Disney Hall

Beck, far right, performs with special guests including Anne Hathaway, left, Jenny Lewis, Jack Black, Merry Clayton and Jon Brion during his "Song Reader" project at Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles on Sunday.
(Christina House / For The Times)
Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic

On Sunday night in Los Angeles, two competing entertainments occupied downtown concert spaces to offer musical variety. At the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live before a few thousand people and a few million TV viewers, the American Music Awards beamed high-tech pop to the masses, wide-open digital glitz packaged for those invested in the ephemeral.

A dozen blocks north at Walt Disney Concert Hall in a stately space with strict rules against smartphone usage, Beck Hansen’s “Song Reader” celebration offered similar star power in a more enclosed setting, one that honored both the permanence of printed matter and the open-sourced bliss of on-the-fly musical interpretation. It was an utterly strange and singular night of story and song.

As in: The show opened with Jack Black, wearing an oversized T-shirt printed with a huge image of a Rottweiler’s head, pulling his pants down. Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker did a wildly, joyously crooked dance to “Why Did You Make Me Care?” that ripped through any concert hall pretense. The night ended with the sold-out crowd answering Beck’s query of “Do we?” with a hearty affirmation, “We do!”

PHOTOS: Best in theater for 2012


We certainly did. An evening devoted to work from Beck’s recent set of songs written as sheet music and published in a stunning volume by McSweeney’s, the event brought to Disney Hall’s stage artists and actors including John C. Reilly, Oscar-winning actor Anne Hathaway in duet with singer-actor Jenny Lewis, composer-arrangers Jon Brion and Van Dyke Parks, TV star turned singer-rapper Childish Gambino (a.k.a. Donald Glover), Colombian singer and songwriter Juanes, comedian Tig Notaro and others.

Part concert, part love letter to music, part variety show, the night was more intimate, ramshackle and funnier than the AMAs. There were pregnant pauses between sets, a few false starts, a funny short film about kids and music and any number of joyously informal crowd participation moments (spontaneous bird calls, rounds of applause for roadies merely exchanging microphones). The result: a loose but expertly delivered and received night of art.

Sunday’s concert was another big step in Beck’s long, fascinating evolution from quirky beatbox folk singer to one of the city’s most accomplished artistic advocates. Guided by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the direction of David Campbell (Beck’s father), Beck and friends offered both grandly arranged renditions of songs and simpler takes that revealed the nooks.

Singer Merry Clayton, best known from the recent documentary “20 Feet From Stardom,” set an early standard, delivering a string- and brass-guided version of “Eyes That Say ‘I Love You.’ ” The song is a softly rendered work about love and regret, and Clayton turned the freshly composed tune into something that suggested timeless standard.

PHOTOS: LA Opera through the years

So rich was the rendition of “The Wolf Is on the Hill” by the trio of Reilly, Becky Stark and Tom Brosseau that it felt like an unopened love letter found between the pages of an old book. Singing in three-part harmony, the trio delivered a simply arranged version of an ominous song about doom and death: “Those days of grave concern have turned themselves to silence/While the winter fires burn what was left of kindness.”

Childish Gambino, whose forthcoming, and much delayed, album will finally see release in early December, delivered “Please Leave a Light on When You Go” with simmering falsetto tension. It turns out he’s devoting equal time to music and acting with good reason.

Hathaway teamed with Lewis for a lovely, ethereal version “Last Night You Were a Dream.” The song was made grander by Campbell’s sweeping arrangement, one that employed the orchestra to full effect.

CRITICS’ PICKS: What to watch, where to go, what to eat

At times, though, Campbell’s arrangements neutralized the songs, the heft of the orchestra diminished by relatively beige tones. Seldom did they feel as inventive as the songs they were supporting. They prevailed, though, during Cocker’s evening-best performance. As Campbell directed the symphony, Cocker acted out the lyrics with oversized drama, pointing and gesticulating while doing one of his trademark cockeyed dance steps.

Between set readings offered myriad contexts. Filmmaker Allison Anders and her daughter Tiffany recounted their experiences using music as a portal into narrative storytelling. Comedian Notaro told a funny anecdote about embarrassing a cool classmate in grade school with the chorale intro to the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Music supervisor Randall Poster read a recount of arranger-composer Jack Nitzsche’s work on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Black did a ridiculous -- and pantless -- rendition of “We All Wear Cloaks.”

The artist at the center, Beck, hit peaks through some of his first-ever public performances of his “Song Reader” works. The best, the patriotic Woody Guthrie-suggestive “America, Here’s My Boy,” illustrated the ways in which the composer has internalized the country’s musical foundations.

CHEAT SHEET: Fall arts preview

He closed the night with the set’s biggest affirmation, one whose message joyously flips pessimism on its head. Listing all the reasons why we should give up, the ways in which shutting down and closing shop seem like the only solution, he and the roster of performers wondered about futility.

“Do we ever want to take the low road? Do we ever just want to say we’re through? Do we want to lock the door and throw away the key?” The questions piled, and they repeated: “Do we?”

And with great energy and voice, the whole of Disney Hall resolved to quit with a big-throated “We do!”


American Music Awards: Performers stick to routine at AMAs

Review: Pearl Jam rocks L.A. Sports Arena in first of two nights

The best place to hear music? Cruising in the car, speakers booming

Twitter: @liledit