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Beck's Austin City Limits taping highlights "the slow stuff," channels Willie Nelson

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Beck ACL taping
Beck's Austin City Limits performance will air as part of the 40th season.  Photo by Scott Newton

Who imagined 20 years ago — when “Loser” seemed like a king-of-the-pile one-hit-wonder tune and not one thing more — that Beck would still be around, and that he’d have managed to cover so much creative ground?

There’s been Funky Beck, Folky Beck, Sad Beck, Party Beck, Rocker Beck … you get the idea. The guy’s got more muses than most of us have underwear, though they don’t always play well with each other.

 Beck and his five-piece band spent the majority of the two hours channeling Willie Nelson in the house (and TV show) that the Red Headed Stranger helped build. 

 Take Sunday night’s Austin City Limits taping, where one Beck Hansen and his five-piece band spent the majority of the two hours channeling Willie Nelson in the house (and TV show) that the Red Headed Stranger helped build.

This is to be somewhat expected since Beck is currently out in front of crowds in support of his new album Morning Phase, which is one of those Sad Beck singer-songwriter records we get every eight to 10 years from him.

So after a pair of party tunes to start the show — “Devil’s Haircut” and “Black Tambourine” — it was time for a deep dive into material where the tempo rarely picked up past a shuffle and lyrics were packed with honest heartbreak and yearning (“Lost Cause,” “Think I’m In Love”) or fairly obvious imagery and symbolism (“Blue Moon,” “Blackbird Chain,” “Walking Light”).

Those strong tunes represent some of Beck’s high-water-mark material, but running “the slow stuff” — as he referred to it form the stage at point — together for an hour or so had the effect of pushing the audience’s respect for a mercurial artist toward its breaking point, if not actually reaching it.

One hopes Beck knows this and mixes things up more effectively in October when he returns to Austin for two weekends as a second-level headliner at Austin City Limits Music Festival. (He looks to be slated opposite Outkast on Friday night.) Too much of his James Taylor starter kit material and that crowd will flee across Zilker Park to hear Andre 3000 and Big Boi dropping funk bombs like “The Way You Move” and “Bombs Over Baghdad.”

Of course, Beck can throw those punches, too, as he showed toward the set’s end, with his Beach Boys pop ode “Girl” and a run through “E-Pro” that was riotous, metallic and straight-up unhinged. After an encore with a couple re-shoots of some mid-set Sad Beck songs, the night wound down with the funk and sample pastiche “Where It’s At.” That is, of course, the 1996 tune where Beck basically declared his mission statement of working with “two turntables and a microphone.”

Those turntables were nowhere to be found on Sunday night — a bank of keyboards provided the small handful of samples needed — as Beck and his band morphed into a roadhouse blues band at several points. On that last throwback tune, though, when he was free associating lyrics with lengths of microphone cord draped around his neck and blazing through a harmonica solo to close things out, he was the adventurous and completely riveting sonic tramp that earned him “this generation’s Dylan” accolades years ago.

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