Like a long-lost lover come back for one last booty call, Beck settled in to serenade Tampa with Debra, that slow jam about seducing a JCPenney worker with a fresh pack of gum and a pretty kickin’ Hyundai, when he remarked on the rainless horizon.
“Such a beautiful summer evening right now,” he told 11,000 fans at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre Thursday night. “I feel the romance in the air tonight.”
Was he kidding? With Beck, who can tell: Irony comes part and parcel with His Whole Deal. But then, so does his ability to make a certain type of crowd go chock full o’ party nuts. And that was the side of Beck fans mostly saw in Tampa, as the 49-year-old alternative hero dropped in for a long, long, LONG-overdue local show near the tail of his summer co-headlining tour with Cage the Elephant.
Seriously: There are people old enough to drink who weren’t yet born the last time Beck played Tampa, way back in 1997. Since that tour, he’s kept racking up acclaim for shape-shifting in and out of moods and phases, going from Party Beck (Midnite Vultures, Guero, Colors) to Sad Beck (Sea Change, Morning Phase) at the drop of a wide-brimmed hat.
He’s been mostly in Party Beck mode since 2015, when Morning Phase won Album of the Year at the Grammys, and so it was Thursday in Tampa. Only one true ballad, the earnest and beloved Lost Cause, made the setlist -- and even then, he chuckled his way through one flubbed lyric.
Instead, Beck kept his foot on the good-time gas, opening with the rusty slide of his breakthrough hit Loser, pumping the low-rider funk of Que Onda Guero and rattling out the tin-can soul of Mixed Bizness. His six-piece backing band kept the volume cranked high, blasting ear-splitting guitar assaults on Devils Haircut, E-Pro and Gammy Ray (the latter, featuring the line “Standing in a hurricane,” feeling especially timely).
Beck does this thing where he sings into the mic with one hand held high, maybe dancing a bit while he does it, and if any other singer did the same thing, they’d look like dorks of the highest magnitude. Somehow, Beck pulls it off, even while singing his new stuff, shuffling and skittering on Dreams or Saw Lightning, or whirling his microphone cord like a lasso on Wow. He never looks fully serious, but also never fully joking. He’s just Beck in all his Beckness, having a chill time, and that’s all part of the fun. Golly, how Tampa has missed him.
Much more familiar to local fans are Cage the Elephant, last seen in these parts cursing the bejesus out of the Tampa Bay Lightning. They’ve staked a solid claim as one of this decade’s top alternative acts, especially in a live setting, where singer Matt Shultz -- who, come to think of it, looks a little like Beck -- can let his whole rock-star thing run wild.
The Kentucky shag-rockers do have a few Beckish singles in their arsenal, especially the psychedelic stomper Mess Around and the rusty slide-blues funk of Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked. They still borrow liberally from the Stones and Iggy Pop, thrusting a slithery dementedness into Skin and Bones and Come a Little Closer, and a little surf-rock bravado to Cold Cold Cold and Back Against the Wall.
But in the wake of their heady new album Social Cues, Shultz has ditched the classicist mod shtick in favor of a weirder, glammier theatricality. Over the course of some 18 songs, Shultz stripped from a heavy Zorro-like costume to a pair of nude tights and red satin shorty-shorts, spending what seemed like half the set in the crowd, howling and wandering through a pit of delighted patrons. During closer Teeth, he rushed up through the crowd to surf up atop fans at the back of the seats, hollering and clambering as Queen’s We Are the Champions blared over the speakers.
Opening the night, and making their Florida debut, New Yorkers Sunflower Bean entertained the early-arriving dozens with a half-dozen shimmery, reverb-washed wallops of alternative rock.
And two years removed from their high-on-the-poster slot at the Gasparilla Music Festival, Austin, Texas indie rock veterans Spoon snapped and sizzled through about a dozen jittery, pulsating cuts from throughout their career, including The Underdog and I Turn My Camera On, as singer Britt Daniel praised Tampa watering holes like the Hub and Urban Cantina.
“We know a thing or two about margaritas,” he said. “We had a straight-up classic margarita at Urban tacos.”
Beck brought members of Cage the Elephant, Spoon and Sunflower Bean out for an extremely loosey-goosey encore party, bookended on both ends by his hit Where It’s At. The super-sized band played a few licks of the Rolling Stones’ Miss You, Chic’s Good Times, Elvis Costello’s Pump It Up and his own One Foot In the Grave; then Shultz came back out to sing Beck and Cage’s collaborative single Night Running.
And then, as Where It’s At played into the night, the bands danced in a maelstrom of confetti, snapping photos, line-dancing and shuffling off into the night. Beck, that ageless cowboy spaceman at the center of it all, was happy to serve as ringleader. Party-starting’s his thing, after all. And he knows how to end them right, too.