I have returned from a long-awaited highlight of my summer homestay, a Beach Boys concert. This is an event that oozes Americana out of its pores. Going to a Beach Boys show almost seems like a station of the cross in our civic religion. As I commented on an earlier post, this is a band that cuts across generations like no other I am aware of. Many teenagers today will discover the Beatles on their own at some point in their adolescence. In contrast, they know the Beach Boys, instinctively. This cult of familiarity was certainly present as my fiancee and I went to their 50th Anniversary tour stop at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, a venue that saw no shortage of Beach Boys shows in the 1970s and 1980s.
The diversity of the crowd that gathered that this open-air theatre in state parkland was striking. It wasn’t racially diverse (with the curious exception of some professional-looking concertgoers of South Asian descent), but it was generationally diverse– with lots of 12-year-olds present, plenty of aging baby boomers, those in their 40s who rode on the first waves of 70s Beach Boys nostalgia, and hipsters who insist that the SMILE sessions are rock’s best kept secret. Among the olds in the audience, there were some startling juxtapositions, as if the Boomers couldn’t quite figure out who the Beach Boys belonged to– they were almost evenly divided between men wearing ballcaps featuring their navy or air force unit, and befuddled counterculture refugees. (In this, I have to concede that the band is more at home with the former, but that is an entirely different post.)
I was also accutely aware that this was probably the only concert I’ve attended so far of actual significance to rock history. (The only other contender is Peter Paul & Mary at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD, where their show was interspersed with a discussion of the 1972 presidential election campaign with George McGovern and MASH’s Mike Ferrell.) This is because this might well be the swansong to the Beach Boys career, and features a reunion among its surviving charter members. Mike Love, who has kept the band active and touring throughout its epochal history was there, of course. As was longtime sideman Bruce Johnston. But what made this tour special was adding David Marks, who joined the band as a 15-year-old rhythm guitarist in 1962, Al Jardine, who had been estranged from the band since Carl Wilson’s 1998 death, and above all, its guiding influence, Brian Wilson.
How did the show stack up? Very well indeed. The first thing that deserves praise is the setlist. I’ve studied a number of setlists from a great many artists to appreciate how difficult it is to construct a natural flow and a logical song selection to make the band’s fan bases happy. You need the big hits to satiate the casual concertgoer. You need ambitious material to please critics. And you need to dig out some obscure old chestnuts, or “deep tracks” to make the hardcore fans happy. Amazingly, all of this was accomplished with aplomb. Mike Love thrived on medleys of old hits; the band started with a relentless series of surfing-and-hot-rod songs, completing six in about the first 15 minutes, including “Surfin’ Safari”, “Catch A Wave”, and “Little Honda.” Pet Sounds fans got their fill as well, with “Sloop John B.”, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” all featuring in the second act. But what struck me as courageous was the inclusion of so many album tracks, especially from the band’s 70s albums that don’t grace the “Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits” packages that we are all familiar with. Among the songs in this genre that made appearances are “Sail On Sailor”, “Please Let Me Wonder,” “Add Some Music To Your Day”, “All This is That”, “Darlin'”, “Disney Girls”, and “California Saga.” While the new songs were somewhat forgettable, many concertgoers, myself included, will be interested in investing in the forgotten nooks of their back catalog.
The music was expertly done, but with a decided ensemble feel. There were, by my count, 14 men on stage during the show, with most of them given a microphone. All this, however, created a reasonable facsimile of the band’s studio sound, which often featured multi-layered vocals and a multitude of ambitious instrumental pieces. But it was also clear that the actual highly-touted original members didn’t have their own instruments placed all that highly in the sound mix. Bruce Johnston routinely hammered out chords on his keyboard. Al Jardine mostly used his guitar as a prop. And Brian Wilson’s electric piano may not have even been plugged in.
Ah, yes. Brian Wilson. I would have been happy just to see the five classic members of the band on stage playing cards or reading from the phone book. But it is difficult not to feel a bit sorry for Brian. To be sure, Brian’s being alive and being lucid, and being sober, is a remarkable accomplishment, let alone his ability to withstand the rigors of touring. But for most of the show, he seemed lost, not contributing much to the vocals except where he was needed. This was especially true in the first half of the show, but less so in the second, which featured the Pet Sounds tracks, “Heroes and Villains,” and a few others. For all I rag on Mike Love for being a conceited and acrimonious asshole, he at least gave his all throughout the performance.
On the whole, though, it was a fine show. If it ends the Beach Boys story, there can be no finer conclusion, five men reunited in the winter of their lives, brought together by the music they wrote and performed that rewrote the American songbook. And I was pleased as punch to be a witness to it. Kudos to the Beach Boys, for delivering a Springsteen-esque 150 minutes of great music– 48 songs played in part or in the whole. I guess you were, in fact, made for these times.