The Beach Boys: Manchester Apollo 27/5/15 and Royal Albert Hall 31/5/15

NB, this review was meant to be a whole 1500 words longer. WordPress disabled autosaving revisions, and didn’t bother telling their customers. When I hit “post”, for some reason it lost everything I typed today, and posted only the part from yesterday, and I can’t recover those 1500 words. I can only apologise for the brevity of this.
(EDIT OK, so WP didn’t disable it. It’s just stopped working in Firefox with my set of extensions. It works fine in Chrome, which I wasn’t using :-/)

One of the many myths people think they “know” about the current touring Beach Boys is that they are a nostalgia act, who just perform the hits. This is certainly something one sees repeated on the more unpleasant fan message boards, with the implicit message being that there is something somehow shameful about having enough classic hit records to fill an entire show, and that there would be something better, something more legitimate, about going on stage and doing two hours of songs nobody knows.

What those critics don’t realise is that, given the chance to do a long set, the touring Beach Boys will do that *as well*.

On Sunday, at the Albert Hall, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, David Marks and their excellent backing band (Scott Totten, Jeff Foskett, John Cowsill, Tim Bonhomme, and Brian Eichenberger) played from 8PM to 11:26, with only a very short interval in the middle (the Manchester show had to finish at “only” 11PM, because of a venue curfew, so was slightly shorter). They played sixty songs, ranging from early surf songs, through their glorious mid-60s perfect pop period, the artistic material of the late 60s and early 70s, right through to 2012’s reunion album That’s Why God Made The Radio. Other than their late 70s commercial and artistic nadir, every period and style of their music was represented.

And this was done without cutting out those hits — and with good reason. I’m a fan of the artistic side of the band, far more than I am of the hits, but those hits still include some of the greatest singles ever recorded — Don’t Worry Baby, Good Vibrations, I Get Around, God Only Knows… these are songs that stand up with the best music has to offer, and to *not* play them would be ridiculous.

Indeed, an audience member who didn’t know what to expect would think that they were just in for the hits at the start of the show. The auditorium is black, and over the PA plays Dion singing Runaround Sue, before the voice of DJ Wink Martindale is heard introducing the Beach Boys’ first single, Surfin’. The track starts to play, from the record, and then right at the end the lights go up and the band (and at the Albert Hall, but not at other shows, a seven-piece horn and percussion section) take over, before segueing into seven other fun-in-the-sun songs in a row without a break, all with Mike Love on lead vocal.

This section shows that this band are capable of reproducing the thrill of those early records (and the odd later attempt at recapturing their glory) impeccably — Jeff Foskett’s falsetto is beautiful, Love’s voice is somewhat huskier than it was fifty-four years ago, but still surprisingly preserved, and David Marks plays the guitar parts with a reverbed surf guitar tone that sounds if anything more appropriate than the rather subdued tones on the original records.

There are four massive runs of hits in the show, bookending the start and end of each half. The surf songs at the beginning of the first set are paired with the car songs at the end, while the second set opens (after the get-the-audience-back-in-their-seats song California Dreaming) with the more complex music from 1965 and 66, and the end is a gigantic run of crowd pleasers like Help Me Rhonda, Barbara Ann, and Fun Fun Fun. Most of the audience would have been more than happy with the twenty-eight or so songs that make up those gigantic blocks of hits, and you couldn’t blame the band if they’d just done them.

Instead, those songs made up less than half the set, and the lesser half at that. In between, we had Scott Totten (the band’s musical director, who is largely responsible for the touring band’s artistic renaissance in recent years) singing Let Him Run Wild, a song that is *obscenely* difficult to sing, and making it sound beautiful and easy. We had John Cowsill, possibly the greatest rock drummer I’ve ever seen, playing complex percussion parts while belting out the lead vocal of Heroes & Villains. We had Bruce Johnston singing Disney Girls in the best voice I’ve heard him in since I became a fan. We had Brian Eichenberger, the new member, only in the band a month, playing bass on sixty songs he must have rehearsed up while on tour and singing lead on songs like You Still Believe In Me, and we had Jeff Foskett’s lovely falsetto.

But the real highlight for me came on Wednesday, when for the first time in forty years the Beach Boys played Surf’s Up, a song that even Brian Wilson hasn’t played live in a decade, and that I never thought I’d hear live again. They did it both nights, and Sunday’s was technically better, but hearing Scott, Jeff, and John sing that song on Wednesday made my year.

(I should also make special mention of Tim Bonhomme, the keyboardist who is, other than Mike and Bruce, the longest-serving of the band members. His part is generally a supporting one, and he takes no lead vocals and few solos, so he’s easy to ignore, yet on many songs he has to bear the weight of making up for the complex instrumental arrangements on the records almost single-handedly).

There were flaws in both shows — in Manchester, the first show of the set, there was a certain first-night stiffness, while at the Albert Hall Mike Love sang the wrong section of Don’t Back Down at one point — but they were the kind of flaws that let you know you’re watching a live performance, rather than the kind that detract from it.

The Beach Boys are playing Cardiff tomorrow. If you get the chance, go to see them. They’re so much more than “just” the best set of hits you’ll ever hear.

Setlist (This is the Albert Hall setlist, but the two shows were similar. Songs marked * were only at the Albert Hall — there were no songs played in Manchester but not London)
Catch a Wave
Don’t Back Down
Little Honda
Do It Again
It’s OK
Goin’ to the Beach
Surfin’ Safari
Surfer Girl
Farmer’s Daughter
In My Room
Isn’t It Time*
Please Let Me Wonder
Kiss Me, Baby
Dance, Dance, Dance
Let Him Run Wild
Sail On, Sailor
Keep an Eye on Summer*
You’re So Good to Me
Good to My Baby
Why Do Fools Fall in Love
When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)
Cotton Fields
You Still Believe in Me
Here Today*
Ballad of Ole’ Betsy*
Getcha Back
Don’t Worry Baby
Little Deuce Coupe
Shut Down
I Get Around
California Dreamin’
Sloop John B
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Then I Kissed Her
California Girls
I Can Hear Music
All This Is That
Their Hearts Were Full of Spring
Disney Girls
Surf’s Up
Heroes and Villains
‘Til I Die
All I Wanna Do
God Only Knows
Pisces Brothers
Good Vibrations
Do You Wanna Dance?
All Summer Long
Help Me, Rhonda
Rock and Roll Music
Barbara Ann
Surfin’ U.S.A.
Wild Honey*
Fun, Fun, Fun

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2 Responses to The Beach Boys: Manchester Apollo 27/5/15 and Royal Albert Hall 31/5/15

  1. Nick Hopkins says:

    Thanks for this review. Insightful and well written as always.

  2. Pingback: The Beach Boys: Manchester Apollo 27/5/15 and Royal Albert Hall 31/5/15 | Mike Love

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