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Beck, Hank Williams III at the Aragon

February 1, 2000

By Jim DeRogatis, pop music critic

The problem with postmodernism is that sometimes you can throw a mix of styles into the Cuisinart and get truly distinctive art, while other times you just wind up with a bloody mess.

Beck either cannot tell the difference or doesn't care enough to acknowledge it. At moments during a sold-out 90-minute set at the Aragon on Monday, he and his 10-piece band delivered a genre-hopping pastiche that was alternately energizing, entrancing and beautiful.

At other spots it was simply fingernails-on-a-chalkboard annoying.

At his best, Beck conjured up something that James Brown coughed up during a nightmare about Tom Jones. Busting his moves on a stage designed to look like Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," he appeared both oddly robotic and as loose as a kid who mistook the Ex-Lax for a chocolate bar.

He was a giddy cheerleader through signature hits like "Mixed Bizness," "Where It's At," and the breakthrough "Loser" (cut short after one chorus because who really needs to hear that one again?). And he was galvanizing as he traded poignant choruses of "I don't wanna die tonight" with his two backup singers during "Nicotine & Gravy."

On the other hand there was the embarrassing mock-Prince slow jam "Debra," complete with posturing worthy of Fred Durst, and the leaden "Hlwd. Freaks," a relatively straight (for Beck) rap song that serves only to highlight how hollow and devoid of meaning his lyrics can be.

The three-piece horn section shined on many of the tunes from the new "Midnite Vultures," while keyboardist Roger Manning was a treat throughout, adding an array of vintage analog synthesizer squeaks and squeals and flinging a purple cape that made him look like Rick Wakeman of Yes.

Faced with some of the same questions about sincerity and identity that plague Beck, opener Hank Williams III answered them in a very different fashion, and his 45-minute set provided a sharp contrast to Beck's uneven performance.

Showing little regard onstage for the slick Nashville approach of his album, this legacy of two of the most famous names in country music went for the jugular with a rip-roaring mix of rockabilly, hillbilly country, Jerry Lee Lewis honky-tonk, and noise rock, the latter provided by Chicago guitarist Duane Dennison, formerly of the Jesus Lizard.

Bashing away at an acoustic guitar, wearing an oversize white cowboy hat and a Misfits T-shirt, Williams evoked the plaintive wail of his grandfather and the hell-raising spirit of his dad. But he nevertheless established himself as his own musician--one as sincere and self-confident as Beck is ironic and flighty.

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