Or a review of the two Beach Boys gigs I was at in Italy.
Before I start… the Beach Boys (in whatever configuration) tailor their sets to their audiences and venues, and so the sets I saw (in open-air venues in continental Europe, where they always play comparatively conservative sets) aren’t a reflection either of the sets they’ve been doing in the US (where they’ve been doing a lot of deep catalogue songs) or the shows they’re expected to do in the UK or Japan.
This was one of those trips where every single thing goes right. I got out of the taxi at the hotel in Rome, to see someone standing in front of the door, who immediately said to me “You must be Andrew!” — it was someone I’ve known on various Beach Boys forums for years, but have never met in person, and while I knew he was going to the gigs, I didn’t realise we were staying in the same hotel. He’d recognised me from my self-description.
It was that kind of trip.
After getting to the venue many hours early — both Italian gigs were standing ones, so if I wanted to get a decent view I had to be there *early* — we first heard over the PA the playlist of classic sunshine pop that is used as the intro music for Brian Wilson’s solo shows (I made a playlist of this music on Spotify ages ago, for those who want to hear it), followed by a tedious loop advertising other shows at that stadium. Finally we got what appears to be the intro tape used for all the shows on this tour — Be My Baby by the Ronettes, In The Still Of The Night by The Five Satins, Graduation Day by The Four Freshmen, Changes by The Zombies, a surf instrumental I should know but don’t, and finally, right before the band came on, The Rain, The Park And Other Things by The Cowsills.
The backing band entered and started up Do It Again. This band consists of the core of Brian Wilson’s touring band — keyboardists Darian Sahanaja and Scott Bennett, falsetto vocalist Jeff Foskett, woodwind player and co-musical-director Paul Mertens, percussionist Nelson Bragg and multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory, along with Mike D’Amico, who normally plays drums or percussion for Wilson but here plays bass. These people are all fantastically talented musicians in their own right (especially Probyn — he’s in or has played with about a dozen different bands, most of which are among my very favourite bands of the last few decades). Guitarist Nick Walusko has had to leave the tour for health reasons.
Joining the musicians from Wilson’s band are two musicians from the band that’s been touring as “the Beach Boys” for the last eleven years, drummer John Cowsill (formerly of The Cowsills) and guitarist/vocalist/co-musical-director Scott Totten. These are both fantastic additions — they’re the two most talented members of the touring Beach Boys, and Totten shows at least as much devotion to getting the music *right* as Brian’s band do (so much so that after he was made bandleader many people started saying they actually preferred the Beach Boys touring band to Brian’s), while Cowsill is simply the best live drummer I’ve ever seen, bar none, and can play with the precision of a Hal Blaine while also giving the music an energy that Brian’s band have previously somewhat lacked.
Once they started playing, the five surviving 1960s Beach Boys came on stage.
While this tour is billed as a reunion, these five men have never all played together before this year — there was a little game of line-up musical chairs in the early 60s, and again in the late 90s, so while they’ve all played with all the other members in a band called the Beach Boys, these five Beach Boys only got on stage with each other for the first time at the Grammys earlier this year.
Despite that, there’s a real chemistry there that comes from having worked together, off and on, for fifty years. They all have their own role on-stage and fall into it absolutely naturally. Brian Wilson sits off to one side, plays keyboard, and takes a lot of lead vocals, but he’s many people’s main focus. He’s an absolutely riveting presence even though he’s not doing much — and he’s *very* engaged (for him — Brian has never been totally happy with stage performance. But having seen him solo eight times, he’s at least as happy and comfortable with this tour as he’s ever been on-stage.)
David Marks takes all the guitar solos, and is the most ‘rock-star’ish of the band, the closest to a conventional idea of cool. He’s also quite an intense, focussed guitarist, not interacting much with the rest of the band but concentrating on his playing.
Mike Love is the frontman and main lead singer, and the most controversial member of the band. On this tour he’s toned down the less classy aspects of his on-stage schtick, although he’s still using many of the same jokes, with the same timing, that he used in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008 and 2011 (just counting the shows I’ve seen him do before). On this first show he was sounding very nasal, and quite often flat — more so than at any previous show I’ve seen him do — but he sounded great on the second show.
Al Jardine is really the revelation of these shows. His voice is the only one which is even better than it was in the 60s, and he just sounds incredible. He’s also as serious about his vocals as Marks is about his guitar — seeing the intensity on his face as he sings even the more banal parts is wonderful.
And Bruce Johnston acts as cheerleader, doing very little musically in comparison with the other four (only taking one lead vocal, Wendy), but keeping the crowd clapping and enthused.
These five very different men somehow click as a unit, in a way that the band simply didn’t in the 80s and 90s. They interact like old friends, not like people who can’t stand the sight of each other — and the same goes for their interactions with the backing band. While there have been reports that some band members are less keen on these shows than on the Brian Wilson tours, they’re still giving it their all on stage, from Darian Sahanaja taking a great lead on Darlin’ to Probyn dancing away to Nelson’s percussion interplay with John Cowsill. You simply couldn’t imagine a better live band than the thirteen men on that stage.
Some people have asked, incidentally, to what extent the Beach Boys themselves contribute instrumentally. I was up front for both shows, and at opposite ends of the stage each time, and watching very closely, and so I can say this:
Brian — at various points in the Rome show he played odd little bass runs with his left hand which were audible in the mix, and during the intro and first verse of Kokomo he was the only one playing keyboards, and he was *very* audible then.
Dave — his guitar is always in the mix, but his vocal isn’t. The only times I could swear he was in the vocal mix were for Getcha Back, Surfer Girl and In My Room, while on Cal Dreaming he came in for the massed “Ooh” backing vocals four bars too early, and nothing came out of the sound system.
Al — his guitar is definitely audible at times. The part he’d normally play on banjo on California is on guitar for these shows, and very audible, and a couple of times when he stopped playing to adjust his mic or his settings I noticed the rhythm guitar part get thinner.
Bruce — Never noticed his keyboard in the mix, though it might have been, and when Mike did his “give me my note” bit on Be True To Your School, Bruce hit a key and nothing came out…
That said, the Rome show did have a couple of flaws — both Brian Wilson and Al Jardine fluffed their lead vocals (on You’re So Good To Me and Then I Kissed Her respectively) in such a way as to temporarily throw the band for a bar or two, and David Marks tried a bit of improvisation on some solos that didn’t *quite* come off. But those flaws were more than offset by the rest of the show.
In particular, Brian hasn’t been in better voice in decades than on this tour, mostly because he’s not having to carry the whole show by himself, and even on a song that would not normally be a highlight, like their cover version of California Dreamin’, he sings with an energy that he normally never matches. And while he got distracted a couple of times (I think he was hearing voices — I know the expression all too well from my days working on a psychiatric ward) he carried on playing even when he wasn’t giving it his full attention.
And while it was a more hit-oriented show than they’ve been doing in the US (and more so than they’re planning to do in the UK), and certainly leaned far more on the early fun-in-the-sun material than I’d choose, it was still a forty-five song set, and many, many of those songs are among the best songs ever written. I can’t complain at a show which includes Heroes & Villains, All This Is That, God Only Knows, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, In My Room, Good Timin’, California, Don’t Worry Baby, Please Let Me Wonder, Good Vibrations and Sail On Sailor, can I?
On the US leg of the tour they got the balance in the setlist exactly right, while here it was leaning more towards crowd-pleasers — but the thing about crowd-pleasers is that they do please the crowds, and usually for a reason.
After two and a quarter hours, the band left the stage, and the audience spontaneously started singing the falsetto part to the tag of Fun Fun Fun (the closing song) until the band came back on just to look at the audience and grin.
But that wasn’t the best day…
The next day, I got a train from Rome to Milan to go to the second Italian gig. And so did the Beach Boys.
I was just about to get on the train when I saw , walking past me, the familiar curmudgeonly JFK-meets-Cagney face of Bruce “Europeans are socialist assholes who hate success” Johnston, followed by the equally familiar and much more friendly face of Darian Sahanaja.
I didn’t bother the band on the train itself — I’m not the kind of fan who wants to interfere with their days — but I did speak briefly to several of the band members as they were walking past. I wished Probyn Gregory a happy birthday, exchanged a couple of words with a couple of the backing band members, and spoke briefly with Bruce, Al and Mike.
Bruce and Mike were about as you’d expect — Bruce being minimally polite, saying “thanks for coming” and walking past without stopping (which is absolutely fine, incidentally, not a complaint — he *was* polite, and he owes me nothing more than that, and on other occasions when I’ve spoken to him he’s been positively garrulous), while Mike stopped and spoke for a minute, and was very friendly, but got away pretty much straight away (again, as he’s entirely entitled to do — he had a train to catch).
Al Jardine, though, was absolutely lovely to talk to. I didn’t get to talk with him much (again, train to catch) but he stopped for longer than any of the others, and seemed genuinely delighted to talk with me a little about the tour and about his solo album.
Getting to the gig, we were allowed close enough while queuing to hear the full soundcheck (Kiss Me Baby, Darlin’, California Girls and a couple of others), before going in.
The setlist was similar to that of the day before, but they added two more songs (Ballad Of Ole Betsy and This Whole World — I don’t mind admitting I yelled with excitement when they played that one), bringing it to forty-seven songs long, and while the show the night before had been extremely good, this time the band were just *on fire* — it was one of those nights when everyone seemed to be playing at their peak. Mike’s voice was much less nasal, Dave Marks’ guitar improvisations worked rather than failing, and in general the whole thing was just that little bit better than the night before.
(The one exception is that Brian seemed slightly less engaged, though still better than at many of his solo shows.)
Al Jardine also recognised me from earlier, waved at me several times, and threw me his plectrum at the end (a custom plectrum with the Beach Boys 50th Anniversary Tour logo on one side and John Stamos written on the other — according to Probyn Gregory later, all the guitarists have their own custom plectra, and Stamos presumably had some done for the couple of shows he guested at in New York). I also held up a “Happy Birthday, Probyn” banner (made by my wife, Holly, for me to take), which got smiles from several of the band members. (That banner and the greeting at the train station also sparked a conversation between Probyn and myself on Facebook later, which was nice).
I know I’m sounding a bit like a fawning fanboy here, when I ‘should’ be complaining that they didn’t do Our Prayer or I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times like they did at some US shows, or making fun of Mike Love, or something. But I’m not going to. This was nowhere near the artistic achievement of the Van Dyke Parks show I saw last month — in fact it’s arguable whether it was the artistic equal of the Monkees show I saw last year (though that says more about how great the Monkees were than anything else). But it was a group of incredible entertainers and musicians, performing forty-five-song-plus sets including some of my very favourite songs along with some songs which, while not quite so good, clearly made tens of thousands of people at the gig very, very happy.
It’s not the mouth-open awe of Brian’s UK tour in 2002, or of the Smile tour, or the premiere of That Lucky Old Sun — those are experiences on a totally different plane. But these shows were *much* better than Brian’s 2008 UK tour, when he played essentially the same hits setlist (but a much shorter set, and with less enthusiasm), and the difference between these shows and the joyless trudge that passed for a Beach Boys show in the 80s or 90s is impossible to overstate.
This tour is a one-off thing, and there is already talk of Brian Wilson’s next solo tour, and the next tour by Love and Johnston as “the Beach Boys”, so if you get a chance to see it, do so. I do hope that, as is rumoured, they add more of the artier stuff for the Wembley show, but even if they don’t, it’ll still be a show to remember.