March 30, 1994 - Axis, Boston, Massachusetts [Hijacked]
Time to go way back in the Pink Noise TARDIS to a very early Mellow Gold show: March 30, 1994 at the Axis in Boston. The Axis was a relatively small club right next to Fenway Park, and Beck’s wave of “Loser” popularity was at an apex when his first ever tour started in March, 1994. Mary Lou Lord, a popular Bostonian folk singer (I saw her busking in the street once when I lived there!) and That Dog, along for this whole tour, opened the show.
The bootleg is old and distant, the crowd is noisy, but it is still listenable, and enjoyable.
A few earlier recordings from Beck’s career exist, but mostly acoustic shows, or incomplete or terrible-sounding tapes. This Axis tape, on the other hand, is (probably) a full show from near the beginning of his first actual tour. Beck was still clearly finding the correct balance between his artistic punk tendencies and satisfying an audience. (Honestly, this probably took him a few years.) But that, above all, is what makes this recording so very fascinating to hear today. It captures Beck at his beginning, in front of the world for the first time, as his immense talent as a performer was literally just starting to take shape. His songwriting skills were always there, but as a performer, he was quite different than he would shortly become (and is now).
A DJ introduces Beck: “Tonight for the first time in Boston, it’s fucking Beck!!!” The enthusiastic exclamation is immediately tempered, as Beck strolls out alone. He mentions that someone told him he was jaundiced, and the crowd looks jaundiced too, so he brought them vegetables. In looking up information for this show, I read a memory from someone saying that Beck’s crew handed out cold cuts to the audience, so I guess that’s what was happening.
Beck then dryly announces, “This is called ‘Whoomp! There It Is,’” before playing “Mexico.” Beck’s voice sounds quite nice, and there’s some fancy guitarwork in there, but this is definitely an awkward song to start a show with, especially at this time, at this place. The Axis was a young, hardcore style venue and I’m sure the crowd was expecting more rowdiness, and Beck gave them a long hypnotic Woody Guthrie folk tale off the bat. (You can hear audience members on the boot say things like “that was horrible!”) I think at this point, Beck was still figuring things out, as well as being slightly confrontational (i.e., not giving a fuck).
Next, Beck sings a heavily distorted acapella “Special People,” the only known live version of the song. It is very short, and after a long pause, Beck shouts “you goddamned motherfucker!” before Joey Waronker starts a skittery drum beat and Beck continues to lull the crowd with blues. This unique “One Foot In The Grave” lacks the energy of its usual blues stomp pizzazz. It doesn’t last very long, and slides to a lowkey stop. Beck can do folk and blues in his sleep - even at this point, he’s pretty great at it - but the crowd wants more, and these three songs do not really provide any punch. They don’t feel vital.
So, the band in full finally hits the stage. ”This is called ‘Headgear Jockstrap’,” Beck tells the crowd with a laugh. He does not talk much at this show, except a few song intros, which is surprising, having heard other 1994 shows. This is also the only known recording of the song, a plodding heavy metal guitar instrumental riff that ends with a loud Beck scream. Is he trying to get the crowd going? Or himself?
Another awkward pause as the band re-settles before heading into a dynamic “Pay No Mind.” The set sort of starts for real here, no more messing around with whatever, they jam through some of Beck’s better songs. The fire that was missing is finally lit. Not surprisingly, the crowd starts paying attention.
Beck’s band at this point consisted of Chris Ballew on guitar (he was there for the first half of the Mellow Gold tour), and then Dave Gomez on bass and Joey Waronker on drums (who were there for all of 1994). These guys are all great musicians, but at this point, they’re playing it down (or maybe not there yet, I’m not sure). The early 1994 shows come off ragged and rugged, with a touch of Fluxus underneathe-like when Joey lights his drums on fire, or Beck hands out food, or shouts “Special People” at the crowd.
"Fuckin WIth My Head" comes next. I love hearing this song sound so dirty, and this show is definitely picking up steam. And listening now, I cannot believe this is Beck-his raw vocals sound literally nothing like the singer he would become. His singing ability may be the most remarkable evolution Beck has had. Here he’s mostly just shouting instead of singing, though his melodic songs help make that listenable.
"Fume" follows naturally after that, another wild one, and the band seems to have a good handle on this run of songs in particular. Someone in the crowd cannot stop screaming. A completely crazy "Soul Suckin Jerk" starts with a lighter touch, as Beck gets lost in the lyrics, but by the second verse, he is there and nails it and the song is just as noisy and intense as anything. It feels like it is constantly about to fall apart, but never does. Best song of the night! It shows off more dimensions than most of songs at this point — rap, noise, rock, goofiness, slightly psychedelic.
Beck then goes into the two big centerpieces of his set, “Blackhole” and “Loser.” “Blackhole” on stage is a slowburning sludge of a song, still hypnotic, but not acoustic and gorgeous like the record. It has a different feel entirely, but still maintains the main core of the song. Beck lets the music take over, and you can barely hear him.
After that, Beck mentions again the cold cuts, so I guess more food is being passed out to people, while a blistering “Loser” gets them riled up again. There is always stories about how dismissive Beck was of the song back then, but fact is, he still performed it, and well. Sure, sometimes he changed the chorus (“I’m a softy, baby, so why don’t you rock/squeeze me?” tonight), but as confrontational and punk as he could be back then, “Loser” was the least confrontational and punk part of the show.
That said, a couple of Beck’s quick punk songs come next: “Chicas Punk” and “Burnt Orange Peel.” The first is a short blast, where Beck shouts “chicas punk!” a few times. A number of years back, a setlist was discovered with “Chicas Punk” listed on it. Beck.com did some research and found that Ross Harris had given Beck a comic book called Chicas Punk, and Beck wrote a quick song with the title.
”Burnt Orange Peel” and “Sleeping Bag” are fun, as Beck digs into One Foot for a couple of songs. “Burnt” was never played all that often that we’re aware of, and “Sleeping Bag” comes off as a warped lounge singer song, but unfortunately the tape cuts halfway through the track. When the tape cuts back in, Beck is starting an aggressive and dimented take of “Truckdrivin Neighbors.” At the end, someone shouts, “Ladies and gentlemen, Johnny Cash!” I am not sure if any songs are missed in that cut, but the tape is 55 minutes long, so if so, not much.
I have a note on Hijacked about how this show always feels out of order to me. The songs in the middle would later open or close shows (“Fume,” “Blackhole”) while the songs at the beginning and end would find better place in the middle (acoust stuff, “Sleeping Bag,” “Truckdrivin”). But that kind of flipped-out flow highlights that Beck as a performer was still learning on the fly.
It can be easy in retrospect to be like, “look how genius Beck was at the start!” I won’t go that far with this tape though. I am not sure there are too many signs here of who Beck would become. Beck’s later skills in performing, storytelling, holding an audience enrapt all have yet to arise. But even a young, raw, unrefined slab of Beck is an entertaining and worthwhile listen now and again.