While Mike Love and the rest of the gang have continued to tour as the Beach Boys, mining the "Help Me Rhonda," Barbara Ann," "Little Honda" side of the oeuvre, Brian Wilson, on the far side of fragile genius, has managed to breathe new life over the past 15 years or so into the band's most complex and sublime work. He's toured Pet Sounds, and toured and recorded a version of SMiLE. And by my count he's put out three records that can stand with the '61-'79 Beach Boys work: Brian Wilson; Imagination (my copy's signed); and of course SMiLE.
How has Wilson managed this feat? By serving as a magnet school for the best Beach Boys disciples of this generation's power pop and sunshine pop scenes. He's got Jeff Foskett, who originally replaced Carl Wilson in the Beach Boys for a spell circa 1982, as his band leader. He's got the Wondermints. he's got Nelson Bragg. It's kind of an all-star team.
So the reunited beach Boys have Wilson and his ringers, plus the core group touring as the Beach Boys; in other words "Brian is Back," and he's brought his studs with him.
John Stamos (Full House, touring Beach Boy in the '80s and '90s) introduced them shortly after 8, and there were 15 people on the stage-- the 5 originals and semi-originals (Wilson, Love, Jardine, David Marks and Bruce Johnston), Probyn Gregory on bass and Foskett on guitar up front, everyone else on a riser across the back line. Love's vocals were weak out of the gate-- likely the mix, because he was fine after a song or two-- but the solid wall of sound from all those voices was chilling.
Click here to see the setlist.
They played a ton of songs across two sets and encore. As with Wilson shows of recent vintage, the best ones were the more complex numbers, which Wilson's band does a great ob of reproducing (including glockenspiel, theremin, whatever horns are necessary). And the layers of vocals were amazing; maybe a dozen voices on the good parts. They opened, appropriately, with "Do It Again" and then tossed off four short early songs in a row, not stopping in between. But for me the show lifted off on a trio of tunes that featured Brian-- "Surfer Girl," which like the best Beach Boys songs sounds sunny but is actually wistful and melancholy; then "Please Let Me Wonder" (with a gorgeous a capella coda); and "You're So Good to me." "Cotton Fields" was kind of a drag, but Bruce Johnston's "Disney Girls" was a highlight, as was the next song, Jeff Foskett taking lead vocals on "Don't Worry Baby."
For the last 6 songs of the first set, all short early songs with a car theme, Stamos came on to play drums; he took a showy solo on "Be True to Your School."
The majority of the second set featured the more expansive pieces. They opened with a cover of "California Dreaming," and then a Pet Sounds duo, "Sloop John B." segueing directly into "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Highlights. Then they showed a video of original Beach Boy Dennis Wilson singing his beautiful "Forever" (off Sunflower), with the live band backing him-- except that the video messed up, so Stamos dashed on stage to sing the lead vocals as they finished it off. Love joked that Stamos knew the song because it was "Uncle Jesse's wedding song on Full House" (true); what he didn't mention is that Stamos sang it when they recut it on a horrible early '90s record. Still in all, a pretty song and kudos to Stamos for quick thinking.
Three more great songs--"Sail On Sailor," "Heroes and Villains," and "In My Room"-- and then the Love/Jardine composition off of Carl and the Passions: So Tough-- "All This is That," one of my stone cold favorites, and an under-appreciated gem. The vocal layers were thick and gooey, the playing spot on, and it was another highlight. Then "This Whole World," "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," and "God Only Knows"-- the latter with Carl singing on video and the band backing him.
Then the good stuff was sort of over, and they moved into the home stretch, starting with the new song (Yay. New stuff.) and a bunch of short, peppy radio hits straight from the Mike Love version of the band. For the last couple, Brian moved out from behind the piano he sat behind on the left side of the stage all night pretending to play, and strapped on the bass; and Stamos came on to play guitar (because the fourth guitar player is apparently essential on "Barbara Ann.")
For the encore Stamos (who we had already seen way too much of) came on to play congas, center stage, for the unfortunate if inevitable "Kokomo." Then the equally inevitable but joyous "Good Vibrations" and Fun, Fun, Fun."
I know I'm being a little snarky, but overall, it was great, I'd see them again in a heartbeat. And, yeah, it's pricey, but you should too if you can. You'll sing along all night (especially if you like to do harmonies and backing vocals.) There was some hokiness, but that comes with the territory. There was also more than enough exquisite vocal and instrumental acrobatics, especially on the majority of the second set. Mike Love, to his credit, recognized the contribution of Wilson's band mates, and took them pretty much all into this conglomeration. As in his own band, Wilson often didn't do much; but everything he did do brought an outburst of applause from an appreciative house. They band sounded great. You could, were you looking to be critical, point out that a lot of the pretty noise was coming from people besides the actual 5 Beach Boys. But so what? As I say, you love these songs, and they were played beautifully, with what was as close as possible to the original band, doing what they've been doing for over 50 years.