The first seating section to sell out had been the one on Brian Wilson’s side of the stage; ticket touts outside the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre weren’t even offering them as game time approached for The Beach Boys’ Toronto concert (Tuesday, June 19). It’s probably the same at every stop on this massive North American tour. Spin it however you want – new album, milestone anniversary, all surviving members from the glory days reunited – the truth is Wilson’s both steak and sizzle here, at least for the fans with money to burn.
Brian’s rarely been a Beach Boy since 1986, which is both mortifying and pathetic. I can’t think of a comparable instance – not even Floyd without Waters – of a big-tent rock band sputtering along without its engine like this one has. Wilson’s tragic personal life dogged the band and imperilled its legacy long before he left, a cruel fate considering all he contributed to the cause. But even as he turned an unlikely late-‘90s comeback into a full-fledged solo career of intermittent brilliance and immense goodwill, his erstwhile bandmates – particularly those still operating under the brand name –became easy punchlines. And that’s a shame, too, because it’s not as though these guys lost their chops – Mike Love, Bruce Johnston and Al Jardine are pros, comfortable at any venue ranging from casino halls to football stadia. That should’ve been enough – it is with practically every other act of similar vintage – but the perception of The Beach Boys has ever been complicated by factionalism. Love, Wilson and Jardine have all toured the songbook separately since 1999, with legal guttersniping practically an annual event.
But this might be the least dysfunctional The Beach Boys have been in about 45 years. Just in time to salvage some eleventh hour self-respect for the band, (“There’s lifespan involved here,” Love recently told Rolling Stone), Wilson helmed a pretty good comeback record that made #3 in the U.S. earlier this month, and everyone’s reconvened in front of just about the best backup band imaginable in order to do justice to one of the rock era’s best, deepest and most important song catalogues.
The result – for 33 shows and counting- is a staggering document of glorious sound and singing, best-in-class bundles of joy and wonderment springing from the golden age of the pop single, when every hook and chorus meant business, and when The Beach Boys went hammer-and-tong against the best Motown and British Invasion acts, none of which were slouches, and matched or bested them all.
In concert Tuesday night, the impact of their song selection was dizzying. Toronto opened with a six-song medley in 12 minutes. That’s a lot of staple-of-AM-radio choruses hurtling by before you’ve checked whether your drink is safely protected from shuffling feet. Early Beach Boys records were engineered so that something happened every 15 seconds or so, and Wilson could also be ruthless with the endings of his songs – the chorus or tag repeated once before a quick fade. The fact these songs are so recognizable, so punchy and bright, so packed with melodic derring-do, and coming so damn quickly at you is, in fact, breathtaking.
And after that sixth song, Love – ever the wisecracking emcee – announced the band would “like to take an intermission, followed by a nap.” I mean, har-har, but point taken, y’know?
Several times the band plunged into themed fusillades that dared you to guess the next number, only to strike up the answer while you were still rifling through your internalized discography: cocksure car songs (“Little Deuce Coupe,” “409,” “Shut Down” and “I Get Around”), sun-splashed surf tunes (“Catch A Wave,” “Hawaii,” “Don’t Back Down” and “Surfin’ Safari”), Pet Sounds in miniature (“Sloop John B,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”), and one sequence about women that may or may not have been intentional, but struck me as brilliant either way (“Surfer Girl,” “Wendy,” “Marcella,” “Then I Kissed Her,” and “Kiss Me, Baby”).
That “women” sequence spoke volumes about this reunited gang’s strengths. “Surfer Girl” gave Wilson his first solo lead of the night, on the bridge that announced his heartrendingly tender ballad voice to the world in July 1963. Feathered by age, its plaintive quality remains (and sounds a helluva lot better than it did in the late-1970s, to name a point in history), and Brian won the crowd’s first standing ovation. On “Wendy,” Love’s resonant lower register sparkled in the stacked harmony arrangement – he’s lost some power in his natural tenor range, but still lines the bottom like no one else has ever done in service of a Beach Boys tune. “Then I Kissed Her” was Jardine’s first lead in the set. His splendid voice, easily the best-preserved of the bunch, soars with the crackling energy he always brought to Beach Boys records. Marginalized since 1998 – isn’t that infuriating? – Jardine’s had to make do with smaller, mostly west coast bookings, but his fantastic performance is exactly what the Love-Johnston touring faction has been missing all these years. More than any other original voice, bar perhaps Love’s bass, Jardine’s makes the blend work. And that blend could hardly sound better than it did on the closing song in this sequence, the stunning, all-hands-on-deck “Kiss Me, Baby,” with its explosively rangy choruses and spectacular a cappella ending. I had my hands cupped behind my ears for that one, doing whatever I could to intensify the thrill. Another lengthy ovation. These guys were tossing gems around like there was no tomorrow.
VIDEO: “Help Me, Rhonda,” from the June 19 Toronto show:
The nine-man backing unit (sometimes 10; Nick Walusko was absent) is tremendous. It’s not the first time The Beach Boys have benefitted from a great live band. As a smaller, more-or-less self-contained unit, they earned Rolling Stone’s band of the year nod in 1974 despite not even releasing a new record. But this lineup, 80 per cent of it Wilson’s support act for the past dozen years of victory laps, will reproduce the old Capitol records note-for-note and feel-for-feel, which affords a best-case scenario for the Boys, who’ve largely become a band of singers. (Each of Wilson, Jardine and Johnston play instruments, but received wisdom has them pretty low in the mix, the better to maintain precious clarity.) With Wilson on board for this tour, it was a relief to learn earlier this year his band would provide the bulk of the backing. Rock music’s first true studio rat, Brian probably never jived with the inadequacies of sound reproduction on the road. This band plays the songs as he arranged them to be heard. (It’s not for nothing Brian employs a full-time percussionist on the road: Beach Boys records possibly feature the least amount of cymbal work in the rock idiom. It’s all about sound.) He’s enjoyed that luxury on all his own tours; now, hearing that band behind these voices must be immensely gratifying.
Among the players, Jeffrey Foskett is the superglue, almost a Brian-Carl amalgam. He’s been Brian’s right-hand man since 1999, safety-netting Brian’s leads at first, but eventually taking the falsetto parts in the arrangements. On stage, Foskett’s is the clearest voice besides the Boys themselves, and he’s singing the most identifiable part of any classic Beach Boys song. Challenging gig, but he is equal to the task. Given one lead vocal in the set – “Don’t Worry, Baby,” no less – he nails it. Keyboard and vibes man Darian Sahanaja, another key player in the Wilson camp, sings “Darlin’,” and it is wonderful. With so much strength in the wings, you wonder how much of the blend comes from Foskett, Sahanaja, et al. The answer, of course, is it doesn’t matter as much as it might, because each of the Boys is right on top of the blend, and almost always on his mark. Johnston sounded weak on the “Wendy” bridge, but did a bang-up job on the delicate “Disney Girls (1957).” Brian fluffed a couple of first verse lines, but, again: the blend, the blend. If anything, those imperfect moments served to remind one of just how good this crew really is.
David Marks is on this tour, let’s not forget that. It’s a great feel-good story on a feel-good-tour in a feel-good year. Marks was the forgotten man in Beach Boys lore, although he’s there if you look closely enough. He’s sitting on the hood of the car on the first Beach Boys album jacket. He played on the first five LPs before quitting in summer 1963. He joined Love’s Beach Boys touring band for 21 months in the late ‘90s. He’s been around, see. But now he’s on the front line, positioned between Brian and Mike, playing excellent, rugged, electric leads. In Toronto he sang “Getcha Back,” a top 30 single released more than 20 years after he’d left the group. Sometimes on this tour he sings “Hawaii.” On both songs, his everyman huskiness sounds closer to Dennis Wilson’s singing than any of his bandmates’. And they say you can never go back home. Welcome home, David.
Speaking of going home: late in the show there was a tribute segment to the departed younger Wilsons. Rogueish anti-hero Dennis and peacekeeping angel Carl were represented by isolated lead vocals from their respective signature ballads (“Forever,” “God Only Knows”), matched to live backing by the Boys and band, as video clips played across the screen upstage. I imagine it’s more a sop to the dedicated fan than the casuals: I found the gesture affecting, but it did slow the momentum some, and there were accounts of some concertgoers mistaking this for an Impending John Stamos Appearance.
It was a show of moments, snapshots of this band’s convoluted history and personal politics: the Boys gathered around Brian’s white baby grand for “Add Some Music To Your Day,” like they did while learning their parts in the ‘60s; Mike and Bruce’s practiced slapstick routine, to the exclusion of the other members; Al signing record jackets and shaking hands at the end of each set, as he is probably accustomed to on his modest touring circuit; Brian bolting from the stage as each set sounded its final note; David taking the solos once Carl’s domain; Brian leading the band through the tricky “Heroes And Villains,” surely one of the most complex songs to trouble the upper reaches of the pop charts; Brian strapping on his Fender bass for “Barbara Ann,” surely one of the most airheaded songs to trouble the upper reaches of the pop charts; the giddy, extended outro to “Fun, Fun, Fun,” a genius rock song concocted during the early days of Beatlemania, a call to arms back then, and a clarion call to summer ever since, that brilliant falsetto wail inciting the entire crowd, about 15,000 strong, to move in unison, to sing, to stamp feet, to snap smartphone pics, to SMiLE.
Sure, this tour won’t give you but a few moments from Wilson’s jaw-droppingly brilliant 1966 output, when he tapped into a higher plane of compositional creativity, only to lose his nerve and resolve in the face of intramural confrontation. We’ll never know what he was capable of, but we do know what he accomplished. He, and his brothers and cousin and school friend and neighbour and surf music peer, the guys who made up The Beach Boys’ 1960s lineups.
In the final analysis, this show really has something for every stripe: the casual fan, the rock music buff, the curious younger crowd, the diehards – we’re all treated to the best-possible representation of Beach Boys songs (and they played so many! 48 songs in two hours, fifty minutes!), with the first Wilson-Love-Jardine-Johnston package in ages.
Is it the last hurrah? Don’t know. By Labour Day each of the Boys save Marks will have turned 70. Rock music’s a relatively young creative idiom; its frontiersmen are still establishing the lifespan for bands with the will to go on. But this can’t help feeling like that gorgeous sunset breaking through the clouds after an unsettled day of thunder and lightning, calm after turbulence, the last thing you see before the onset of night. Against some awfully long odds, this Beach Boys show has us basking in that sunset glow.
BONUS VIDEO: One Toronto fan’s fantastically blissed-out reaction to “Then I Kissed Her.”