Live: The Beach Boys Bring The (Mostly) Good Vibrations To The Beacon
The Beach Boys Beacon Theater Wednesday, May 9
Better than: You were almost definitely expecting.
Yes, John Stamos introduced them. And, yeah, they filed onstage, called out one by one by their bandleader in true showbiz style while the backing musicianstwice as many as original membersstruck up a tasty groove. But then, there they are, the Beach Boys. "For fifty generations they are still going strong," Stamos says during the intro, a tongue slip, but it makes more sense with the sight of Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston. All around 70, theirs are faces that seem to have occupied vast tracts of time'60s sunshine, '70s implosion, '80s chintz, '90s wilderness730151;and somehow survived into the second decade of the 21st century to arrive at the Beacon Theater for two shows this week. To point out that they are grandparents many times over is besides the point, which is that they're the Beach Boys.
And no matter that it's sometimes hard to tell where the harmonies are really coming from, or that the accounting of "original members" remains kind of suspect, or even that Brian Wilson just kind of sits there behind a white miniature grand piano and doesn't do much at first, that the band members instruments are mostly props, and probably a few other things. The fact of the matter is that it all instantly sounds absolutely fantastic as the band buzzes into the already-nostalgic-by-1968 Love-penned "Do It Again," "Catch A Wave," and a medley of surf songs, as they get to work celebrating their 50th anniversary.
In VH1 specials, YouTube reruns, retrospective DVDs, and everywhere else, Mike Love's stage moves are beyond gaudy. Whatever the era, he remains stuck there to ham it up in permanent loop. And, watching Love work live from the floor of the Beacon, everything about his presence remains awkwardly hilarious. But every overly literal pantomimed gesture reveals something that becomes more amazing over the band's two-hour two-set show. Love and Jardine hit the stage with a torrent of finger-guns and grins, doing their active best to keep the crowd on its feet. It is their first proper tour with Brian Wilson in nearly 30 years, but Love, Jardine, and Johnston have never really left the road, most lately circuiting an endless string of theaters, state fairs, casinos, and anywhere that will have them under a variety of Beach-related band names-cum-legal dodges. It is quickly obvious that they are working the room and hard. In fact, the crowd is well illuminated, the better for them to make direct eye contact with as many people as possible. It is also quickly obvious that they are really, authentically enjoying themselves, banal stage patter and all.
Just as the novelty of this starts to wear off, Brian Wilson comes to life. He gets his first solo vocal during "Surfer Girl," sounding as disconnected as billed. But it is one of the few moments of the show where the Beach Boys sing mostly unaided. And, then, during "Please Let Me Wonder"a bit of proto-Pet Sounds melancholy from 1965's Today! and an inspired song choicehe is suddenly and unmistakably present. He remains fully connected through the following "You're So Good To Me," not quite hitting the highest notes, but fully inhabiting the song and the moment. For the rest of the show, Wilson disappears into frequent moments of seeming solitude on his piano bench, but just as often comes back, sounding as beautiful and fragile as one could possibly hope.
But as Wilson fades into the background, Love and Jardine's shticks somehow transform into something almost completely endearing, finger-gunning at cousin Brian as often as possible between songs and giving him constant praise. "Brian did this amazing vocal arrangement, check it out," Love says before their version of "Why Do Fools Fall In Love." "They're really looking out for him," at least two women are overheard remarking in some variation to their boyfriends during intermission, and none of the praise seems too fulsome. Meanwhile, Love and Jardine never stop with the eye contact. To wit: a good party trick to know if you ever find yourself at a Beach Boys show is that no matter how many times you point finger-guns at Mike Love, he will finger-gun right back at you and wiggle his ring-bejeweled digits happily and make warm, smiling eye contact and you might feel that Mike Love really cares about you and wouldn't be bothered in the slightest if you thought he was silly. Jardine takes a camera from a woman in the front row and semi-carefully takes a series of shots while singing "Help Me, Rhonda." Throughout the night, they create a complete and unexpected intimacy that never gets old. At one point, a fan holds up a sign and Jardine is so engrossed trying to read it that he misses his guitar tech's repeated signals that it's time for a new axe and has to hurry to change instruments before the next song.
There are moments of lag. Jardine's country-pop Leadbelly arrangement, "Cotton Fields," is still a bit flat, and there are a half-dozen too many sax solos. Their new single, "That's Why God Made The Radio," is typical reunion snooze. Beyond-the-grave video screen duets with departed brother Dennis and Carl Wilson on "Forever" and "God Only Knows" are a bit disconcerting. And, after all this, still virtually no songs from Smile besides a panoramic "Heroes and Villains" (Brian: present!) and the requisite "Good Vibrations" (Brian: ready to go the fuck to sleep!). Up front with Love and Jardine is David Marks, who replaced Jardine briefly in 1962-1963 (though stage-parent Murry Wilson never let him near a mic on album), and who also played in the totally excellent late '60s psych outfit Moon ("She's On My Mind" would have been a great bust-out). He gets an occasional guitar solo, too. Everywhere, the music is glittering and polished, the best possible face for the Beach Boys. Drummer John Cowsill has enough nuance for rich Pet Sounds numbers like "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" (Brian: again, present!), butmore importantlythe kind of primal surf-delinquent joy that defined Dennis Wilson's playing. For all their 15-person harmonies and piled-on arrangements, Cowsill's ecstatic beat remains at the center of the perfectly smooth mix.
And while it's hard to argue with the gang harmonies, again and again, the best moments are when individual voices make it out, most especially on Bruce Johnston's solo turn with "Disney Girls, 1957," and one wishes the band would strip down to its most basic parts more often. Like the Beach Boys as an institution, the song is unapologetically nostalgic, and sung in a voice even more fragile and maybe more beautiful than Wilson's an even deeper reminder that these guys aren't going to be around to sing these songs forever. By the time Stamos's congas are wheeled out for "Kokomo"blessedly about a dozen fewer songs than he appeared on the previous nightthe point has been well made, and it's time to be at a stupid rock reunion show again. Surf's up. At least this summer.
Critical bias: Still waiting for someone to digitize Peter Bagge's essay, "In Defense of (and Praise For) Mike Love."
Overheard: "Did Mike Love just kiss his fingers?"
Random notebook dump: Battle of Love-advocated car/surf songs & Brian's more melancholy/experimental tendencies. Crowd sits during "Please Let Me Wonder," votes with Mike.
Setl ists: Set 1: Do It Again Catch A Wave > Hawaii > Don't Back Down > Surfin' Safari Surfer Girl Please Let Me Wonder You're So Good To Me And Then I Kissed Her Why Do Fools Fall In Love? When I Grow Up To Be A Man Cotton Fields The Little Girl I Once Knew Disney Girls, 1957 Be True To Your School (with John Stamos) Don't Worry Baby Little Honda Little Deuce Coupe > 409 > Shut Down > I Get Around Set 2: Add Some Music To Your Day California Dreamin' Sloop John B Wouldn't It Be Nice Forever Sail On, Sailor Heroes and Villains In My Room All This Is That This Whole World I Just Wasn't Made For These Times God Only Knows That's Why God Made the Radio California Girls > All Summer Long > Help Me, Rhonda Rock and Roll Music Do You Want To Dance? Barbara Ann Surfin' USA Kokomo (with John Stamos) Good Vibrations Fun, Fun, Fun
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