Last night the circus came to Los Angeles, but it wasn't your usual fare. Instead of tiptoeing elephants and performing seals, people were the focus — and not even freaks. Sure, there was a fella with a whip at one point, but he was only cracking that thing to the beat of a small marching band's thump 'n' thud. And those smart enough to follow the procession were rewarded handsomely for taking the chance.
There, in the center of historic Union Station's idyllic courtyard were a pair of art-punk shred-men known to locals (okay, and fans all over) as No Age. The L.A.-bred weirdo rippers opened with something akin to Eno, then worked up a formidable fury via guitar and drum (think Mogwai having a fit), and closed with what may have been the quietest exit of their career — a warm haze that fit the temperate air.
The event was Station to Station, a Levi's-backed multimedia art extravaganza that's been touring the United States by train. A theme of anachronism pervaded (at one point, we were introduced to a 1901 typewriter linked to Twitter), and yet the idea seemed less about looking back and more about engaging in the moment. And the adventurous lineup was testament to the (rare) concept of branding done right.
To wit, a series of yurts spread around the site offered different artist-curated oddities for attendees. Among those was a tent featuring a film by controversial filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Another was simply a maze of black walls, chalked on with metaphysical wisdoms, which one wore a headlamp to in order to navigate. Of course, our foremost interest was the music, and there was no shortage thereof.
No Age were the first aural explosion of the night, but soon the marchers began to move again and we followed, winding up under the rail station's dizzyingly high roof with marble under our feet. As we approached, we heard a new rhythm: the slowly struck hand drums of the Congos with Sun Araw, a collaboration that pits a trio of reggae legends in their 60s against the drone-funk of some ace L.A. experimentalists.
Though the blasted dub, burning myrrh, and near-tangible gauze of those keyboards made the set plenty immersive, Dan Deacon's follow-up set was the most interactive of the night. Eschewing the stage, as he is wont to do, the Baltimore pop maximalist lorded over a goofy dance competition, instructed the audience in creating a human tunnel, and turned our smartphones into audiovisual instruments via his own app.
Not to be outdone, Beck brought backup: the same 16-person choir that accompanied his recent STS stop in Barstow. When he took the stage, he was merely flanked by two men. But as he sang "The Golden Age" with incredible resonance, those soul-struck voices rose up from elsewhere in the building. They joined him up front before he strummed his way into "Lonesome Tears," and also did the new one, "Wake Up."
Our STS headliner was apparently moved by the spirit, and after a story about getting kicked out of Union Station as a grubby teen, returned to his cracked blues roots via a ripping harmonica solo. In the process, the choir director tossed tambourines to his charges, and led a clap-along to the near-ancient "One Foot in the Grave." The rarity "Free Me" was another highlight, but "Where It's At" was the big one.
Firmly transformed, at one point in the set Beck-as-preacher fell to his knees, and was then raised by the power of his lungful friends. As he stood, the music rose with him and he posed a clutch query to us all: "Can we take it higher? Can we put it in the schedule? Send an application to possibly… take it… a little bit… hiiiiiiiiiigher?" Scheduled. Approved. Altitude attained. Next stop: Oakland.