When Rolling Stone did a seven-page spread on the Beach Boys’ unlikely return to active duty with Brian Wilson rejoining his long-estranged bandmates, the cover blurb called it a “fragile” reunion. But after more than two months on the road, the Beach Boys’ celebrated 50th anniversary tour was looking pretty healthy as the five surviving members with connections to their ’60s prime led nine additional musicians through a 50-song set at a Grand Canyon University Arena performance being filmed for PBS on Saturday, July 7.
The sold-out show started with “Do It Again,” much like their Tucson tour launch back on April 24. And it remains the perfect introduction to this tour, allowing Mike Love to establish the mood with “Well, I’ve been thinkin’ ’bout all the places we’ve surfed and danced and all the faces we’ve missed so let’s get back together and do it again.”
But while the set list did revisit nearly every major Beach Boys standard from opening night — “All Summer Long” and “Dance, Dance, Dance,” unfortunately, falling by the wayside — the set lasted longer in Phoenix (50 songs compared to 43). That allowed them to add such welcome highlights as “Hawaii,” their hit rendition of the doo-wop gem “Come Go with Me,” “Marcella,” “Darlin’,” “Kiss Me, Baby,” “California Saga: California,” “Pet Sounds,” “Add Some Music to Your Day” and the concert’s emotional centerpiece, a transcendentally vulnerable version of Wilson’s heartbreaking signature song, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”
They also worked a second song from their reunion album, “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” into the set, a spirited “Isn’t It Time.”
The fact that they would even have new songs to choose from only adds to the historic nature of this anniversary celebration. Wilson hasn’t been this heavily involved in an album of new original material by the Beach Boys since 1985’s “The Beach Boys.” And the fans responded. “That’s Why God Made the Radio” debuted at No. 3, their highest-charting studio release since “Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)” in 1965.
That doesn’t mean the new stuff got the same reaction as, say, “California Girls” or “Good Vibrations.” And the Beach Boys clearly gave the casual fans who came to hear the hits their money’s worth. But they sprinkled in plenty of lesser-known classics and some truly quirky curveballs, from “Ballad of Ole’ Betsy” (sung by guitarist Scott Totten) to “Good Timin’ ” and “Still Cruisin’.”
Totten, who also serves as musical director alongside sax man Paul Von Mertens, was one of three auxiliary players who took a turn on lead vocals in Phoenix. Guitarist Jeff Foskett handled nearly all the key falsetto parts, including what would have been Wilson’s entire lead vocal on “Don’t Worry Baby.” And Darian Sahanaja made the most of his one vocal spotlight on “Darlin.’ ”
It wouldn’t sound nearly as solid, of course, without those backing players, some of whom were drawn from Wilson’s touring band, the others drawn from Love’s most recent version of the Beach Boys, with John Cowsill of the Cowsills doing his best Dennis Wilson, pounding out the beat with real enthusiasm.
With all those extra hands on deck providing everything from brass and woodwinds to electro-theremin, mandolin, harmonica and jingle bells, they were able to capture the magic of those classic songs while allowing the principal members to shine. It also helped to have that many extra voices in the mix to better duplicate those awe-inspiring stacks of vocals, a key component of the Beach Boys sound. Several times throughout the night, they’d break it down and let the vocal blend carry the song without the benefit of instrumental backing.
David Marks, whose original stint in the Beach Boys was less than two years but included the recording of the first four albums, was a welcome onstage presence, frequently stealing the spotlight with his scrappy lead guitar work, leading the ensemble in the instrumental majesty of “Pet Sounds” and singing lead on “Getcha Back.” He also looked more like a rock star than his bandmates. And it went beyond the shades.
Bruce Johnston — who, as Love explained, is still the new guy, having joined in 1965 — brought just the right amount of vulnerability to his nostalgic contribution to the canon, “Disney Girls,” which may sound even better now, as sung from the perspective of a 70-year-old.
Love, whose sense of humor can be hit-or-miss but seemed to hit more than it missed in Phoenix, prefaced “Disney Girls” with a bit about Johnston as “our Grammy-Award-winning songwriter,” referring to “I Write the Songs,” a hit he wrote for Barry Manilow. Love proceeded to joke about how Beach Boys fans are probably still hearing that song every time they ride an elevator or go to the dentist, setting Johnston up to fire back with Saturday’s best punchline. “Right after ‘Kokomo,'” he joked.
Oh yes, he went there.
Al Jardine, looking sharp in a white suit, turned in several powerful lead vocals, including the Del-Vikings’ classic “Come Go With Me,” the Beach Boys’ manly rewrite of the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” (“Then I Kissed Her”), parts of “California Saga” and a raucous romp through “Help Me, Rhonda.”
Love was in excellent voice on the parts that allowed the character of his delivery to carry the song, which covers most of his lead vocal work. The notes that fell into his lower register seemed like they could have been stronger in spots. But he more than up for that on the classics that play to his strengths as a singer, from “Do It Again” to “Fun, Fun, Fun.” It’s hard to picture anyone but Love, in fact, doing more with the line “I’m gettin’ bugged drivin’ up and down the same old strip/I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip.”
That leaves Wilson, the reason for all the excitement surrounding this tour. He’ll never be the world’s most engaging entertainer. He can seem withdrawn and ill-equipped to deal with any type of human interaction. And when he stepped out from behind the security blanket of his seat at the piano and strapped on a bass, his original onstage instrument, for “Barbara Ann,” he seemed more vulnerable than ever.
But it’s watching him take on those personal demons and face those insecurities live without a net that makes this whole reunion prospect resonate so deeply with the hardcore Beach Boy fan — the sight of Brian Wilson, fragile recluse, reconnecting with the genius of his legacy.
It’s a beautiful thing.
And when he did take command on the mike, it was not only moving but great, from the few turns he took in the spotlight on “Do It Again” to a soulful, self-assured (for Wilson) “Sail On, Sailor,” the “Smile” rendition of “Heroes and Villains” and, as previously noted, the achingly beautiful “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.” There was something about the emotion the legend invested in the lyric “Sometimes I feel very sad” that made the song hit even harder than it does on “Pet Sounds,” Wilson’s masterpiece.
The concert also featured touching tributes to the other Wilson brothers — Dennis, who died in 1983, and Carl, who died in 1998. They rolled video footage of Dennis singing one of his originals, “Forever,” while the Beach Boys sang and played along. And then, they did the same for Carl, supporting his vocal on “God Only Knows.”
Not many shows can deliver that kind of emotional punch then send you on your way with “Barbara Ann” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” But that’s what makes this tour so special.
by Ed Masley
The Republic | azcentral.com
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-4495. Twitter.com/EdMasley
1. “Do It Again”
2. “Little Honda”
3. “Catch a Wave”
5. “Don’t Back Down”
6. “Surfin’ Safari”
7. “Surfer Girl”
8. “Come Go With Me”
9. “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”
10. “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”
11. “Please Let Me Wonder”
12. “Getcha Back”
15. “Then I Kissed Her”
16. “Disney Girls”
17. “Good Timin’ ”
18. “Darlin’ ”
19. “Kiss Me, Baby”
20. “Isn’t It Time”
21. “California Saga: California”
22. “Be True To Your School”
23. “The Ballad of Ole’ Betsy”
24. “Still Cruisin’ ”
25. “Don’t Worry Baby”
26. “Little Deuce Coupe”
28. “Shut Down”
29. “I Get Around”
30. “Pet Sounds”
31. “Add Some Music to Your Day”
32. “Heroes and Villains”
33. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”
34. “Sloop John B”
35. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”
36. “In My Room”
37. “All This is That”
38. “That’s Why God Made the Radio”
39. “Sail On, Sailor”
41. “God Only Knows”
42. Good Vibrations”
43. California Girls”
44. “Help Me, Rhonda”
45. “Rock and Roll Music”
46. “Do You Wanna Dance?”
47. “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
49. “Barbara Ann”
50. “Fun, Fun, Fun”