Singing the City Eclectic: Last Night’s “Song Reader” Concert

This is what happens when you let Beck perform an album of sheet music.

Last night in Los Angeles it was a tale of two downtowns. In the southern end, the Nokia Theater was filled with the orchestrated art, pop, and insanity of the American Music Awards. Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake acted surprised, Lady Gaga and R. Kelly got naughty in a charming simulacrum of the Oval Office, and Miley Cyrus performed alongside a giant hologram of a narcotized lip-syncing space kitten. A mile north at Disney Hall, there was less exposed flesh (although Jack Black singlehandedly tried to fix that) and no felines weeping bedazzled tears, but there were an abundance of dark waltzes and genial celebs—albeit of a different sort.

Beck was the maestro (not to be confused with the conductor) of the Disney Hall confab. For the one-night-only concert of Song Reader, his 2012 “album” of sheet music, he rounded up the LA Phil and an eclectic cast of local notables to read stories and sing songs inspired by his tunes. Conducted by his father, David Campbell, the orchestra offered dramatic punctuation to a slew of strange and charming performances: Jenny Lewis and Anne Hathaway singing a morning-after dirge, the gospel-tinged numbers of Fred Martin and his protégés in The Levite Camp, the velvety smooth heartbreak pop of Juanes, the stunning falsetto of Moses Sumney, the bombast and brio of Jarvis Cocker, the self-consciously retro Americana sound of Becky Stark, John C. Reilly, and Tom Brosseau, and the raw vocal power of Merry Clayton. Beck himself even performed a few songs.

In between, Tig Notaro told an anecdote about the coolest kid in 6th grade being undone by the opening refrains of the Rolling Stones “You Can’t always Get What You Want,” Josh Kun delved into the jingles that once promoted Southern California as a destination for the sun-starved and the tubercular, and Jonathan Gold read an homage to music writer and Fuzzyland club promoter Jac Zinder, who died in 1994.

The night kicked off with Black walking onto stage and stripping down to nothing but his socks, an oversized t-shirt emblazoned with a dog’s head, and, presumably, his undies. He returned, before the end of the show, to perform a number, “We All Wear Cloaks,” which he did bouncing and howling around the stage. At 10:30 p.m., the orchestra signed off and Beck ended the show by leading all the performers in a rendition of “Do We? We Do.” It wasn’t the largest or most famous concert of the evening, but it was hard to imagine it originating anywhere other than L.A., a city that Gold described as “a place where thousands of realities swirl around each other.” Last night, downtown highlighted at least two.