Beach Boys reunion tour
When I was a kid, my best friend Jennifer’s mother informed me that you could like the Beatles or the Beach Boys, but you couldn’t like them both. I nodded solemnly, decided that the Beatles were the superior band, and never gave the Beach Boys a second thought. Until my mid-20s, when I came to my senses, bought “Pet Sounds” and became fascinated with Brian Wilson, the band’s reclusive, troubled and ultimately brilliant leader.
So when I heard that the surviving members of the Beach Boys, including Brian, were embarking on a 73-date, 50th anniversary tour, I was interested. The fact that Brian is still alive and making music is something of a minor miracle, as is the fact that the Beach Boys are willing to get up on stage and perform together. Wilson had not been on a full tour with the Beach Boys in 46 years, and his relationship with founding members Mike Love and Al Jardine had long been strained. A recent Rolling Stone article, titled “The Fragile Beach Boys Reunion,” touched upon this history, and contains numerous quotes from people fretting over Brian. “There’s no doubt the talent’s there,” Love told reporter C. Taylor Crothers. “I wonder about his health. He’s overweight and out of shape, and he doesn’t seem to pay much attention. ... It’s tough, when you’ve seen the Brian Wilson you grew up with and the Brian Wilson that’s going to be onstage nowadays.”
The Beach Boys stopped at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Saturday night, and I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. Would the band sound good? Or would I spend the whole performance shaking my head, lamenting their decline?
I need not have worried: The Beach Boys sounded good. Surprisingly good, given their age and general wear and tear over the years. They didn’t sound quite as good as they did when they were young men, but how could they? The harmonies were still vibrant and fresh, and the band played and sang with energy, humor and, occasionally, poignancy, with each song making a forceful argument for why this tour is more than a novelty, and why the Beach Boys remain relevant today. Even “Kokomo” packed some punch. And the band’s new material, off the just-released Beach Boys CD “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” actually sounded very good.
The show was divided into two halfs, each largely devoted to the band’s hits. But the second half was better, featuring more music from “Pet Sounds” and the band’s later, more adventurous and experimental work, and showcasing Wilson on vocals and piano. The Beach Boys are best known for their sun-soaked, orchestral, California pop — fun songs such as “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “I Get Around” and “Barbara Ann.” And while these are terrific songs, the band’s depth of feeling is best captured on more wistful, lovely and melancholic songs such as “In My Room” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” Listening to Brian sing these songs was incredibly moving, as both pieces seem to express his inner turmoil and desire to be left alone.
The show also featured video tributes to Brian’s brothers, Carl and Dennis, who died years ago; the band’s performances of “God Only Knows” and “Forever” were accompanied by vintage vocals from Carl and Dennis, respectively. Seeing these videos underscored just how much of a survivor Brian Wilson is, and how remarkable it is that the band is still able to play youthful classics such as “Help Me Rhonda” with feeling.
The crowd at the Beach Boys concert ranks as one of my favorite audiences of all time. SPAC generally attracts nice crowds, but this was quite possibly the nicest. It was multi-generational — I enjoyed the tie-dyed clad family seated on the lawn to my right — but still a much older crowd than I’ve ever been a part of. What I enjoyed most was how enthusiastic the crowd was — how happy they were to see this band that they obviously loved. During the intros, they cheered most loudly for Brian Wilson, seemingly aware that touring isn’t exactly easy for him and that, without him, many of the band’s greatest songs wouldn’t exist. Of course, the charismatic Mike Love has helped keep the band’s music and legacy alive by touring with a version of the Beach Boys over the years, and he deserves a huge amount of credit for that.
Overall, the concert was a cheerfully nostalgic affair, but it was impossible to watch the Beach Boys without thinking about the passage of time, aging and mortality. To describe the band’s music as simply escapist does it a disservice, because it’s so much more than that.
Whether this is the Beach Boys’ last tour is anyone’s guess. But I wouldn’t count them out.
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