I saw The Beach Boys again Friday night, a pokey, four-hour-drive-plus-one-international-border crossing from home. That’s dedication. I was either too young or too ignorant to see the band before a lineup featuring Brian Wilson and Al Jardine had to be billed as a reunion, and this 50th anniversary shebang might be the greatest mulligan I’ll get in my lifetime of attending concerts.
I wrote 2,000 words on the Toronto show last week; I’m not about to do that again. This second show – at the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center near Buffalo – reaffirmed everything I wrote earlier, so I’ll direct you to that review for a more typical blow-by-blow account.
There were a few differences between the shows. Four songs were switched out for three recent set additions, including a pair from the tag end of the 1970s, which isn’t a bad idea because the Beach Boys were still charting minor hits in those days and I’m all for a balanced overview. The Boys should be commended: the song list for this tour’s cleared 60, with around 48 played each night. Every week there’s something tested at soundcheck and added to the rotation. But on the other side of the ledger, Mike Love did a seamy bit of shilling I’d read about online: buy nine copies of the new CD, get an band-autographed tenth. He didn’t mention this in Toronto, and I’m betting it’s because Canadian sales wouldn’t do squat for their spot in the Billboard 200.
The Darien crowd was in a terrific mood, all lusty cheers, singalongs, booty-bumpin’. There are certainly people at these shows who hadn’t heard of David Marks six months ago, or will never hear The Wondermints’ Bali. But hey, you try figuring out which demographic’s most responsible for the peal of delight that surges like a tidal wave as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” segues from “Sloop John B.” Does it matter? It’s the sound of every person in the joint in a state of rapture. The songs move you, whoever you think you are. Years ago, Sean Lennon, a kid who’d know something about great rock bands, said “I can’t be depressed if I listen to The Beach Boys.” Damned if he isn’t right. There are indeed places you can go to lock out all your worries and your fears, as the old song goes. A Beach Boys concert is one such place.
Brian did well on “Good Timin’,” one of those recent set additions. He had a good night, slightly better than in Toronto – more patter and body language, more involved during his Fender encore, often very clear in the blend, about equal on his leads. Bri band stalwart Taylor Mills flew in from Texas to catch a show and lend a little shimmer to “Marcella.” Brian told the audience a cute, misleading story about her – not that any of us realized it at the time, but I swear he’s still got that mischievous imp about him. I worry these three-hour shows are too much for Brian, but even though he looks spent by the end-of-show bow, he works hard on his leads, and I think he’s learned a lot about performance in the past 12 years, pacing himself accordingly. And he gets the loudest cheers. I always think of David Leaf’s line about Tinkerbelle, and if Leaf’s right, the crowd’s doing the auteur a lot of good.
The Beach Boys have got game. Consider: no other performer’s drawing from a deeper, greater song list; the backing band’s gorgeously panoramic performances and the front line’s superb singing’ll take your breath away; on any given night you’re hearing 25 or 26 Top 40 hits. All bases are covered. It’s the best satellite radio station you’ve never heard. Hey Mike, this is the travelling jukebox you’ve always dreamt of.
“Kokomo” is awful, though, the one moment during my shows when the spell shatters. It’s charmless, hack pastiche, but damnit, they hold it back ‘til the encore. It gets a huge roar of approval when it’s mentioned earlier in the set during one of Love and Bruce Johnston’s scripted routines. But it flounders in this company, dull and hollow until the chorus briefly sparks to life. The funny thing is, with all this authentic Beach Boys sound flying out of the PA for nearly three hours, this band can’t seem to make it sound much like a Beach Boys song. Ain’t that ironic?
Sometimes I think this tour’s happened as some kind of karmic restitution for years of squandered talent, litigious ridiculousness and awful hats. But the same stubborn resistance to terminal implosion likely paved the way for 2012’s unlikely and remarkable resurgence. The Beach Boys were like the hydra: cut up one band and three touring factions took its place. As years sped by, every Boy maintained his performing chops, one of them formed a phenomenal live band, a marketing hook appeared on the horizon, and suddenly, this: a Beach Boys all-star team for the ages.
A few years ago some friends – discriminating music fans – suggested we catch a Beach Boys show, but when I warned them they’d be entering a Wilson-free zone they backed out. Some need the assurance of authenticity to embrace an experience. This was the time to go, then, a golden opportunity to catch a Mount Rushmore-calibre pop band on extraordinary form. A Toronto paper mused, “The Beatles aren’t going to tour any time soon – in the realm of pop music, this is as good as it gets.”
When this tour wraps, how will you take your Beach Boys? I’d never miss a Brian Wilson solo concert, travel logistics notwithstanding. He’ll take the bulk of this band with him. And it feels like family, y’know? I’d never miss an Al Jardine show either, although I wouldn’t pay as much. A Mike Love-Bruce Johnston show remains the last option, although it boasts two excellent players featuring in this reunion band: John Cowsill, who plays the drums like Animal from The Muppet Show, and guitarist-singer Scott Totten. I think most fans would prefer this reunion group keeps. Been a lot of PR on harmony and bygones and legacy this year, but Love is a road warrior and he’s already booked some Wilson-less South American dates for October. Will Jardine be there? Will Marks? A Beach Boys band with everyone save Wilson could still be an excellent proposition, would feel as though lessons were learned, should be the logical route. If the ball’s in Love’s court – and legal records suggest it is – he’s at a crossroad: how does he avoid fucking with the formula?
On the long drive home I thought about all these things, but mostly I considered myself lucky to have caught this band for a second time in 10 nights, confirming their excellence wasn’t a fever dream or indiscriminate fan worship. There must be ‘bout a million ways to add some music to your day, and this goes to the top of the list.
And now, a little Beach Boys Darien Lake photo dump, followed by the setlist: