Review: Beck rolls in for Old West adventure at the Barbican

Beck dons his best cowboy attire at the Barbican. Picture: Mark Allan/Barbican

Beck dons his best cowboy attire at the Barbican. Picture: Mark Allan/Barbican - Credit: Archant

Making a special appearance at the venue, the alt-folk icon called on guests including Thurston Moore and Simon Armitage, says Alex Bellotti.

Backed by projections of neon cacti and donning a cowboy hat and tasseled black poncho, Beck stood alone on stage with his acoustic guitar, launching into a soulful cover of Jimmie Rogers’ Waitin’ For A Train.

The song has a strange resonance with the alt-folk icon. It originally appeared on his independently-released 1994 record Stereopathetic Soulmanure, around the same time he rose to fame with his major label debut, Mellow Gold. On record, the song was not sung by Beck, but by a homeless man he met and struck up a conversation with, and it was such chance moments of harmony that proved the inspiration throughout his strange but wonderful appearance at the Barbican on Monday.

Anyone expecting renditions of hits such as Loser or Devil’s Haircut were left disappointed. The show continued Beck’s collaboration with visual artist Doug Aitken, whose month-long Station to Station project at the Barbican encourages artists from across all mediums to experiment in a series of special one-off performances.

In this case, the night took the form of a train ride across America’s Old West, with Beck calling on guests including poet Simon Armitage, fellow indie legend Thurston Moore and the London Contemporary Orchestra.

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Videos from Aitken saw us traverse the landscapes of dustbowls, gorges and small towns on the edge of civilisation, while a range of poets took the roles of pseudo-passengers, musing on the frustrations of housewifery, technology and the business class priorities of modern transport. All the while Beck flitted in and out between set pieces with his harmonica, curating proceedings without having to utter a word outside of the songs.

It was a surreal, immersive experience. Much like watching the world go by outside a train window, moments came and went before you could even appreciate them, but at times they coalesced powerfully.

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Moore’s appearance – playing alongside English guitarist James Sedwards – was a particular highlight.

Employing the discordant style he became famous for in Sonic Youth, the Stoke Newington resident took to the mic before embarking on surely one of the most ear-splitting displays of noise rock the Barbican has ever seen. As the railroad visuals behind him became increasingly twisted and psychedelic, the sheer ferocity of the situation appeared to overwhelm a few audience members, who left presumably to check that they hadn’t endured hearing damage.

With Beck emerging one last time for a soaring, impassioned rendition of his 2014 song Waves, the guitar duo changed pace to mimic the chugging of a trundling freight train before joining with the LCO for another chaotic climax. It was a fitting end to a special journey – one that rolled into town, then departed in the blink of an eye.

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