Tell Beck he can perform a classic song with "no limitations or restrictions," and he will definitely wander into some strange territory. Last night, it landed the singer-songwriter on a movie soundstage at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles, where he performed David Bowie's "Sound and Vision" with a 157-piece orchestra on a slowly rotating stage.
"Everybody dizzy yet? There's some sick bags under your chairs if you need it," Beck told his invitation-only audience of 280, who sat on floor cushions around ther small, circular stage. The orchestra surrounded the audience around the outer circle.
Dressed in a black fedora and a sparkling black jacket, Beck arrived with an acoustic guitar, but began by pacing the stage while waving an arm up or down to send the orchestra soaring with sound. Both Beck's stage and the audience platform spun slowly in opposite directions as he performed a radically rearranged version of Bowie's 1977 song.
The "orchestra" was conducted by Beck's father, the acclaimed arranger David Campbell, who has worked on landmark albums by artists ranging from Carole King to Metallica and Muse. The ensemble stretched far beyond traditional symphony instruments, with strings and brass players mingling with two choirs, a yodeler, heavy metal guitarists, xylophones, mandolin, a man playing a bent saw blade, Chinese percussion, a couple of young dudes in glasses bent over vintage electronics, marching band drummers, samba players and many more.
"This is my band," Beck told the crowd. "We do weddings and bar mitzvahs."
The night was sponsored by the Lincoln Motor Company to coincide with the rollout of its "Hello, Again" campaign, which is using Beck's version of "Sound and Vison" for its new theme song. ("Loser" might have given the wrong impression.)
Footage of the performance of "Sound and Vision" will appear online as an immersive experience of music and visuals, where fans will be able to control what direction of the scene they want to explore. Hanging above the stage was a plastic human-like head with ears for eyes, containing multi-directional microphones, while a camera dolly slowly circled the stage, capturing the scene with 360-degree cameras.
"It was an experiment and an opportunity to try something completely irrational," Beck told Rolling Stone. "I attempted to conjure some scenario that could only exist in this kind of space for a one-time performance. It's doing something you could never do on a tour. I was thinking a lot about Busby Berkeley films and multiples of musicians and dancers."
Following the Bowie song (which he performed three times for the cameras), Beck continued his 45-minute set with Chris Bell's forlorn, hopeful "I Am the Cosmos," followed by the shuffling beat and low tones of "Paper Tiger," as a range of mountain peaks filled the big screens behind the orchestra.
During "Where It's At" his microphone cut out for a few words of his opening rap, but otherwise the night was glitch-free despite the many moving parts. Beck danced onstage, traded rhymes with the choir ("Say ooh-la-la soul!") and turned to the orchestra, saying, "You got a guitar solo over there? Come on." The night's set closed with the Sixties soul beat and organ of "Girl."
Audience members entered the soundstage building through a corner façade made up to look like an indie record store from the late Seventies, with LP covers of Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, a poster of Germs singer Darby Crash and several early punk 45s. The nearly 80-year-old Soundstage 14 at Fox has been the site of many classic film shoots, from 1943's Stormy Weather to 1990's Edward Scissorhands.
Beck got permission to use the song from Bowie, who essentially endorsed Beck's project by enthusiastically noting the coming performance on his official Twitter and Facebook pages this week. Guiding the production was the accomplished music video director Chris Milk, who told Rolling Stone, "It looks so simple on paper. It became incredibly complex over the month of pre-production."
After the unique and complicated performance was behind him, Beck looked pleased and relaxed offstage. "It's not easy," he told Rolling Stone. "It's also incredibly impractical putting everybody in a circle. Every musician is facing each other. It's an audio nightmare. But the idea of the music surrounding the audience is what was interesting, and how you could play with the sound spatially.
"So the song gets really disjointed, fragmented – it's what you would hear in electronic music, but here it's done live. I was curious to see if it could be pulled off."