Water has always played a key role in the California myth of The Beach Boys – whether via the inviting waves of “Surfin’ USA,” the blue seas of “Hawaii,” or the dark imagery of “Surf’s Up.” But the water onstage for the group’s 50th anniversary tour was of a different sort: it was water under the bridge. If perhaps only for three or so hours each night last summer, all of the oft-publicized tensions that have beset America’s Band over the years seemed to melt away in full view of the audience. So it’s only fitting that Capitol Records’ souvenir of the landmark reunion, Live – 50th Anniversary Tour, is bathed in a warmly nostalgic glow of family and friends adding some music to their day and yours. That this 2-CD set could be preserving the final shared appearance of Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks adds a bittersweet note to the celebration, but then again, the exuberant and the melancholy have always co-existed in the music of the boys from Hawthorne.
When 50th anniversary tour concluded last September in London, it was on a triumphant note despite the confirmation that the group would again splinter. For the second-to-last performance of September 27, the Boys played a staggering 61 tunes. And for the final Wembley Arena show on September 28, the total number was a rather still impressive 55. The new CD set presents just 41 songs for over two hours’ of music – not bad, but not quite a representation of the marathons played last year. But needless to say, these discs have plenty to offer, and not just for those who were in attendance.
The Boys’ first current live album since 1973’s The Beach Boys in Concert, 50th Anniversary features a larger array of onstage talent than any of their previous live recordings. The five core members are joined by guitarist/vocalist/co-musical director Scott Totten and guitarist/vocalist John Cowsill of Love and Johnston’s Beach Boys band, plus seven members of Brian Wilson’s own remarkable collective: Jeffrey Foskett (guitar/vocals), Scott Bennett (keyboards/vocals), Nelson Bragg (percussion/vocals), Mike D’Amico (bass/vocals), Probyn Gregory (guitar/vocals), Paul Mertens (horns/vocals/co-musical director) and Darian Sahanaja (keyboards/vocals). The versatile multi-instrumentalists of Wilson’s band bring a new dimension to the live performances, one imbued with youthful energy as well as a deep knowledge of the original record productions. Taken as one fourteen-person unit, this Beach Boys line-up was filled with reverence and yes, nostalgia, but the group never approached the music like museum pieces.
The two discs, largely adhering to the concert tour’s two-act format and setlist running order, offer a well-sequenced blend of the timeless surf/car/teenage-themed songs and the later, more introspective and adventurous material. The crisp, bright sound of the new album might confirm that there has been some post-concert in-studio sweetening, but it’s hardly a deterrent. Though the sound here is much more polished than that of the raw, harder-rocking unit on the 1973 live album (with Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar joining Love, Jardine, and the late Carl and Dennis Wilson), there’s plenty of spirit from the get-go.
Catch a wave with us after the jump!
Mike Love opens the concert and album with his confident and familiar nasal vocals on a wistful but propulsive “Do It Again,” and he keeps the summer alive leading such early hits as the ebullient “Catch a Wave” and effervescent “Hawaii.” There’s vibrancy in the car songs sequence, and he’s clearly having goofy fun revisiting the likes of “Be True to Your School.” Returning member David Marks (who played on the band’s first four albums before departing in mid-1963 and also served a stint from 1997-1999) adds fuel to “Little Honda” with his prominent bursts of jagged surf guitar, and Marks’ mastery of that defining instrument is among this album’s greatest pleasures. He also sings the soulful lead on Mike Love and Terry Melcher’s “Getcha Back,” an unexpected treat. Of all the Boys, Al Jardine’s voice is the most remarkably unchanged since the band’s heyday, and he shines not only on “Help Me, Rhonda” but also on other songs including a cover of Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s “Then I Kissed Her.” Bruce Johnston, who joined the band in 1965, makes the most of his solo spotlights including his sweet, dreamy evocation of a simpler era, “Disney Girls.”
It’s always a pleasure to hear Brian Wilson cutting loose, and he does just that with his vocals on the first disc’s “Marcella.” The band matches him every step of the way with tight vocals and scorching playing. Wilson also leads the mini-suite that opens Disc Two. It begins with the band’s sly instrumental “Pet Sounds” and segues to the tender “Add Some Music to Your Day,” perhaps the purest evocation of the Beach Boys’ trademark harmonies in the set. Wilson is then poignant on “Heroes and Villains,” brings requisite R&B flourishes to “Sail On Sailor” and opens Jardine’s hidden gem, “California Saga: California.” It’s even fun hearing him sound so animated on “Kokomo,” as he didn’t appear on the song’s original studio recording. (Brian did sing on a Spanish recording of the Love/Melcher/John Phillips/Scott McKenzie tune.) But the album’s most glaring omission is that of Wilson’s “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.” Night after night, he provided the emotional high point of the tour with the nakedly vulnerable Pet Sounds track. It’s much missed.
Along with “Add Some Music,” “California Saga” boasts some of the most lush group vocals here. (Jeff Foskett’s contributions on the high harmonies deserve applause, too.) The chant-like “All This is That,” a ruminative and low-key ode to Transcendental Meditation co-written by Love, Jardine and the late Carl Wilson, is another affecting showcase. And the two songs from the 2012 album That’s Why God Made the Radio – the shimmering title track and breezy “Isn’t It Time” – both fit snugly into the line-up of well-established classics. Much as the concerts themselves did, the album celebrates the lives of Carl and Dennis Wilson with special appearances. Carl’s lead vocal on “God Only Knows” and Dennis’ on his own “Forever” (seen and heard on a video during the concerts) are supported by the live vocals of the Beach Boys. Naturally, they blend seamlessly on disc as they did on stage. The tag on “God Only Knows,” as immaculately arranged by Brian Wilson, still inspires chills.
There’s not a lot of between-song banter, although a few introductions from frontman Love are here. Some enthusiastic interjections from Love and Wilson, among others, have also been retained, but the album produced by Wilson and Joe Thomas (That’s Why God Made the Radio, Brian’s solo Imagination) still gives a sense of what made these concerts so monumental. Whether real or imagined, the camaraderie of the performers as their voices are lifted in song is palpable. So it’s almost churlish to quibble about some of the missing songs. In addition to “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” the rocking “This Whole World,” and the ravishing “Please Let Me Wonder” and “Kiss Me Baby” aren’t included. “Don’t Worry Baby” and “All Summer Long” are conspicuous by their absence.
It’s unclear where the performances on these two CDs were recorded. There’s no information whatsoever in the sparse booklet about venues, but it’s likely that these songs were derived from multiple concerts. (There’s one shout-out to Arizona, and an added lyric about Texas in “Disney Girls” that’s met with applause, too!) Thomas and Frank Pappalardo have mixed all of the tracks with the vocals up front, making it easy to hear the individual harmonies. Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering has crisply mastered the album. The lack of liner notes or recollections from the band members is most disappointing, though, as the concerts deserve to be put in perspective.
It’s recently been announced that Wilson, Jardine and Marks will perform some dates this summer even as Love and Johnston continue their Never-Ending Tour. Indeed, the fivesome’s summer together might be gone. But with the release of Live – The 50th Anniversary Tour, fans can relive the good, good, good – if short-lived – vibrations of the sold-out concert tour. The album can’t replicate the experience of seeing these five men together onstage, basking in the glow of an excited audience. Nor, for that matter, can either of the two DVD and BD releases commemorating the tour. But these souvenirs are doubtless the next best things. And as the sun goes down, another day’s behind us/We’ll spend the nighttime together, The Beach Boys sang on their most recent single, “Isn’t It Time.” Seeing as one can only expect the unexpected where the band is concerned, perhaps one day they will do it again and spend another summer’s worth of nighttimes sharing those ethereal harmonies.
You can order Live – 50th Anniversary Tour here!