Every once in awhile, Beck writes a song like "Soul Of A Man," full of blues references and favorite images, using a language that feels like second nature to him. This one has always felt to me to be more referential than meaningful, but perhaps that's due to the chorus being an unanswered question.
Looking through the references though, I'll start with the phenomenal Blind Willie Johnson, who has a few songs show up in this. First, he has a song called "The Soul Of A Man" which similarly asks: "I want somebody tell me / answer if you can! / I want somebody tell me what is the soul of a man?"
As did most of Blind Willie's songs, his words filtered down through the rest of the blues world, into rock and roll. But Beck clearly knew Blind Willie, as he has referenced his songs many times, even flat up covering more than a couple over the years.
Along side the Blind Willie allusion, Beck's "Soul Of A Man" involves a lot of bluesy ideas and images, such as hollow logs, fires, bones, doctors, gris-gris (a voodoo amulet), and goldenrod (a medicinal flower). I mean, just listing these things and you can see what many of them have in common: cures.
The first verse has the singer feeling hollow, empty, unwelcome. The second verse presents the cures. How do I fix this, he wonders? Is a broken soul still a soul? "What makes the soul the soul of a man?" If he could only get the answer, maybe he could make progress.
Blind Willie Johnson's song about the soul of a man emphasized its mysterious unknowability. "Someone answer me if you can!" Johnson implores. Beck similarly presents it as THE question. Nothing else matters, and the question lingers over the rest of the images. Beck has referred to this in different ways in many disparate songs. The idea that underneath life/success/possessions, you're left with a soul that you have to contemplate and take care of. See, "Strange Apparition" also, for example. (And 2017 update: "Dear Life" too!)
Played live 160 times:
June 11, 2008June 27, 2008June 30, 2008July 1, 2008July 2, 2008July 4, 2008July 6, 2008July 7, 2008July 9, 2008August 19, 2008
...and 150 more
Earliest known live version: June 11, 2008
Latest known live version: February 28, 2018
"Soul Of A Man" has been in live setlists quite regularly since Beck released it.
2008-2009 Modern Guilt tour
Beck played "Soul Of A Man" 38 times out of 51 shows on the Modern Guilt tours of 2008-2009. The song is almost identical to the record, except that the middle bridge and the fade-out ending are much more lively. Really, though, it feels the same.
2012-2013 pre-Morning Phase tours
After a few years away, Beck returned to the road for a handful of tours in 2012 and 2013. "Soul Of A Man" took up fairly regular residence in the setlists of the time (basically all 2012 shows, and about half of 2013). If there's a more acoustic slant on a show, or a special event-type gig, Beck probably won't play "Soul." But if it's a regular tour rock concert, he probably will.
2014 Morning Phase tour
Beck performed "Soul Of A Man" quite regularly on his 2014 Morning Phase tours (39 out of 57 shows). Generally, the song follows the album pretty straight, but with four guitarists going for most of the tour, they were able to bring out some more detail to it. There is also a better ominous feel of dread through the best performances, which really suits the song. The album version can feel a little pale now, if you listen alongside these lively 2014 takes. Maybe for the first time am I able to say that I dig this song totally.
Also I always get the feeling they want to jam at the end longer (with JMJ adding "watch out!" shouts and the like), but they always stubbornly restrain themselves.
2015-2017 post-Morning Phase tours
"Soul Of A Man" remained in basically every setlist through the end of 2017. Beck stripped his band back to 5 musicians for 2015-2016, but they followed the Morning Phase tour model: follow the album arrangement, but infuse it with more life. I've also heard a few times when Beck for some reason stutters the lyrics ("Gamma Ray" style).
Beck added a few musicians back to his group in 2017. Nothing particularly noteworthy: some extra percussion, JMJ is no longer to shout stuff. And while the song was never notably groovy, there was always a touch of groove there which seems they seem to be drifting away from now.
To sum up, somewhat surprisingly, "Soul Of A Man" is one of the automatic songs in Beck's setlists.
I say surprisingly, because it wasn't a single, and it feels fairly unknown compared to his hits. (In 2017, I have seen numerous live tweets from people at shows wondering if it's a new song.) But "Soul" fits very well with Beck's pile of dynamic, rhythmic, explosive songs that he likes to play on stage (i.e., see "Black Tambourine" or "Devils Haircut").