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The Beach Boys 50: Live In Concert DVD

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on January 5, 2013

There is a certain kind of Beach Boys fan who, when presented with a pint glass containing half a pint of beer, will say not “that glass is half full”, nor “that glass is half empty”, but will rather start up an internet petition to have Mike Love arrested for stealing half of Brian Wilson’s beer.

While I am no great fan of Love, this does make it difficult for those of us in the reality-based community to write about anything the band has done, because before even starting to talk about the actual truth, first we have to dispel myths.

In the case of this DVD, long before it was released it was getting one-star reviews on Amazon from disgruntled idiots who were complaining that it ‘only’ featured twenty-one songs, and that this was some sort of conspiracy on Love’s part to stop people realising how good the show had actually been. Or something. These were not the clearest of thinkers.

So before I get to the actual review, a quick word on how music licensing works for a DVD. When one is releasing a CD, the licensing costs for a song are a few pence per copy made. This means that you never have to pay more than you can afford to include a song — if you sell five hundred copies, you only pay a tenth of what you would have paid if you sell five thousand.

For a DVD, though, the rules are different. Here, the publishing companies can charge what they like, and you have to pay them in advance, and a normal charge for a single song of the popularity of most of the Beach Boys’ songs would be in the region of ten thousand dollars, upfront.

Assuming this DVD sells as well as the best-selling Beach Boys DVD of all time (Live At Knebworth), that would mean that if the DVD company featured all fifty-plus songs from the show, they might, in six years, be able to just about pay the licensing fees if they had no other expenses. A fifty-song live DVD by a band like the Beach Boys, who have an incredibly popular repertoire but are of only middling popularity as a band now, is simply never going to be economically possible, at least as a release to the general public.

So, with that in mind, rather than complaining about what we don’t have, let’s have a look at what we do have.

The Beach Boys’ ‘reunion’ tour last year (an odd one in that while all five principals were members of the Beach Boys in the 60s, they’d never all played together before) was an absolute musical triumph. While the early shows (as documented in the Doin’ It Again TV special) weren’t great (they had too much of a focus on the big hits, and live autotune was applied to some of the vocals, with fairly horrific results), by the middle of the tour they were spectacular, and the last show (which I saw and reviewed here) was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life.

This DVD, recorded in Arizona around the midpoint of the tour, captures the band at the point where the show had come together properly, and manages to successfully capture the feel of being at one of those shows.

The twenty-one songs chosen for the DVD sum up the feel of the setlist in miniature. The shows were structured by Mike Love with the same structure he’s been using for his own touring ‘Beach Boys’ on their longer theatre shows for years, and that structure is largely kept to here. There are three big chunks of hits to anchor the show — medley of surf songs (“medley” here just meaning that there is no break between songs, not that they’re cut up or bastardised) at the start, a medley of car songs before the intermission, and a run of the classic mid-60s art-pop hits at the end, with Kokomo and Fun Fun Fun as the encore. With these setpieces in place, peaks to ensure that everyone goes away remembering the show as being full of hits, the rest of the show can then have some of the more obscure material, along with a few more hits scattered through it to keep the audience’s energy level high. It’s a very, very strong structure for a show, as one would expect from someone who’s been touring for fifty years playing a hundred and fifty shows a year.

The rough shape of that structure is still in place here, although it’s distorted by the lack of an interval, and by the quieter songs that opened up the second half of the show being dropped from the DVD, so it goes straight from I Get Around into Heroes & Villains, but luckily some attention has still been paid to the flow of the show and to having a good mix of less well-known songs. So while the DVD still, understandably, has a lot of the hits on it, it drops songs like Surfer Girl, Surfin’ USA and Barbara Ann, all of which have far too many live versions available already, in favour of songs like All This Is That, Marcella, Sail On Sailor and the two singles from the new album. (And if you’d told me a year ago that the Beach Boys would put out a live release with two songs from Carl & The Passions and no Barbara Ann, I would have thought you were mad).

The performances are exceptional. Beach Boys fans looking at the opening credits may well be worried when they see Joe Thomas’ name there that they’ll get some slick, autotuned nonsense, but while there’s clearly been some post-production work done on the vocals (Brian sometimes goes out of synch, and you can occasionally hear two Als or Bruces), it’s mostly handled fairly reasonably. The main reason for the overdubbing appears to have been that Brian had a tendency to bite the ends off his words a little on this show.

But for the most part, this is pretty much exactly like what you’d have heard at one of these shows. The band are all on top form, and the backing band given plenty of screen time, although the focus is naturally on the principals (which is a shame, as one of the highlights of the shows for me was watching the backing band, whether it be Probyn Gregory switching between half a dozen different instruments and playing them all beautifully, or the interaction between John Cowsill and Nelson Bragg). The backing band for this tour (consisting of the core of Brian Wilson’s touring band — Nelson Bragg, Darian Sahanaja, Scott Bennett, Probyn Gregory, Paul Mertens, Jeff Foskett and Mike D’Amico — plus the two best members of Mike Love’s band, John Cowsill and Scott Totten) may well be the best rock/pop band ever assembled, able to reproduce the delicate, subtle textures of material from Pet Sounds while also being able to give a song like Fun Fun Fun the energy it needs.

Unsurprisingly, given the backing band members, the arrangements are kept largely the same as the ones that Brian Wilson has used in his solo tours, so Fun Fun Fun, for example, ends with a snatch of Rhapsody In Blue. In fact, at times this sounds more like a Brian Wilson solo show with guest lead vocals from the other Beach Boys, as the backing band members also fill out a lot of the harmony parts. But that is, of course, no bad thing.

The one actual complaint I have about this DVD is that Al Jardine is criminally underused. While the other Beach Boys’ voices are, unsurprisingly, not up to the same standard as they were in the 60s (though they’ve aged better than you might imagine), Jardine actually sounds better now than he ever did before, and he was a highlight of the three shows I saw. The man is one of the best live vocalists I’ve ever seen, but as the main compromises for the tour had to be between Love and Brian Wilson, he was very much the third vocalist on the tour. This is so even more on this DVD, where he only gets two proper lead vocals (Wouldn’t It Be Nice and Help Me Rhonda), plus portions of Isn’t It Time and All This Is That. While many songs from the set had to be dropped for the DVD release (including a number of my very favourite songs), it’s a shame that the band’s tedious, clunking cover of Rock And Roll Music was left in (although even that had its moments, with Jardine shouting “more cowbell!” and Nelson Bragg obliging forcefully) when Then I Kissed Her or California Saga could have been included to show off just how good Jardine can be.

So, like any official live DVD will be as long as these songs remain in copyright, this is a glass half-full, but that’s much better than no glass at all. The performances here, even of the songs I’m not a fan of, are excellent, and when a song like All This Is That comes along, they’re simply jaw-dropping, with Love, Jardine, Sahanaja, Wilson and Foskett all turning in wonderful vocals.

Of course we’d all like to see a full-length show, with no touching up of the vocals, given an official, pristine DVD release. But this will definitely do, and for those who want a full show for historical reasons, it’s not as if there’s a lack of bootleg recordings from this tour.

One final point — the US release of this DVD (which I was given for Christmas) and the British release differ, in that the British release is a two-DVD set, packaged with the Doin’ It Again PBS documentary produced by Joe Thomas. That documentary, which revolves around the recording of That’s Why God Made The Radio and the earlier, less-good, shows on the tour, is far from essential (and is regularly shown on TV), but it’s worth having if you have a choice as to which version to get.

Songs on the DVD are:
Shut Down (instrumental snippet played over the menu)
1 Do It Again
2 Catch A Wave
3 Hawaii
4 Marcella
5 Isn’t It Time
6 Little Deuce Coupe
7 409
8 Shut Down
9 I Get Around
10 Heroes & Villains
11 Sloop John B
12 Wouldn’t It Be Nice
13 All This Is That
14 That’s Why God Made The Radio
15 Sail On Sailor
16 Good Vibrations
17 California Girls
18 Help Me Rhonda
19 Rock And Roll Music
20 Kokomo
21 Fun Fun Fun
Summer’s Gone (backing track played over credits)

Incidentally, the people who put out this DVD are also crowd-funding a longer, documentary DVD about the whole tour, at PledgeMusic. I’ve pre-ordered.

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