You probably could’ve guessed it was a Beach Boys show just by the shirts the men in the audience wore: Collared, short-sleeved and oversized, with palm trees, hibiscus flowers and nautical gear printed all over them. At the back of the stage, surfboards were lined up like Grecian columns on either side of a huge video screen. It wasn’t until midway through the band’s second set that Mike Love acknowledged what half the people in the audience must’ve been thinking: “It’s, uh, been a little while since we’ve all been on tour together.”
This year, the Beach Boys turn 50. Until the Grammys this past February, Brian Wilson, the band’s troubled heart, hadn’t been on stage with the rest of them since 1996. The tour kickoff last night at the Anselmo Valencia Amphitheater in Tucson was, in that sense, a milestone: not only a marker of their anniversary, but of a public reconciliation between Wilson and the band’s other surviving original members: Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, David Marks and Wilson’s cousin, Mike Love.
It’s not until a band like the Beach Boys runs through their hits back-to-back in rapid succession that you realize just how many hits they’ve had. Over the course of nearly two and a half hours, they played an astonishing 42 songs, many of them medley-style, with nearly no banter in between. Amid the most familiar stuff – “California Girls,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “Good Vibrations” – were a healthy number of deep cuts and covers, including “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and Phil Spector’s “Then He Kissed Me,” which Jardine probably wisely rephrased as “Then I Kissed Her.” There were also two uncanny video appearances by Carl and Dennis Wilson, both of whom died years ago. (Dennis “sang” “Forever,” while Carl took on “God Only Knows,” a song Brian wrote for him on 1966’s Pet Sounds.) And about halfway through the second set, something new showed up: A reflective midtempo ballad called “That’s Why God Made the Radio” – a moment that, like so much of the band’s best music, elevated the adolescent to the divine.
Onstage, Mike Love was a low-key kind of showboat, stepping back and forth with the beat, miming the revving of a motorcycle engine on “Little Honda” and hugging his elbows when he sang “and the northern girls with the way they kiss, they keep their boyfriends warm at night” on “California Girls.” Brian seemed placid and stone-faced, sitting at the bench of a large white grand piano. “Ladies and gentlemen, Brian Wilson,” Al Jardine said after “This Whole World,” at which point the crowd rose to their feet in reverence as he sat, blinking. In a sense, Love and Wilson have always been spiritual opposites: Brian wanted to escape to the solace of his bed on “In My Room”; Mike wanted to escape to the solace of tropical beaches on “Kokomo.” They are as strange a pair as they’ve ever been, but it’s their balance – between Brian’s quiet yearning and Mike’s inability to have anything short of a good time – that creates the band’s strange chemistry.
And while this was in some ways a show about Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys are a highly professional enterprise that depend on highly professional people. At any given time there were between six and fifteen hands on stage, including multitaskers on various saxophones and someone to pick up the French horn on “God Only Knows,” the harmonica on “Heroes and Villains” and the theremin for “Good Vibrations.” Oh, and do that singing thing they do, too.
Considering it was the first night of a semi-momentous reunion tour, there wasn’t a whole lot of sentimentality going back and forth, which isn’t to say the band didn’t care about each other, only that they probably cared about the audience more. There were moments, though, between the childhood photographs of the band flashing on the big screen and the brief congratulations they gave each other between songs, that the weight of their history together was felt. At the end of “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man),” Al Jardine looked at the floor, shook his head and laughed. In the 50 years between then and now, they’d grown up.
Throughout the night, a security guard patiently collected beach balls that had traveled through the crowd, stockpiling them behind a large speaker at stage right. By the end of the second set, the pile had reached halfway up the speakers to the jumbo screen, where Brian’s white grand piano lingered on the screen for a second, then disappeared. During the encore he batted them back into the crowd, one by one.
“Do It Again”
“Catch A Wave”
“Don’t Back Down”
“The Little Girl I Once Knew”
“Then He Kissed Me” (Phil Spector/The Crystals)
“This Whole World”
“Why Do Fools Fall in Love” (Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers)
“When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”
“You’re So Good to Me”
“In Them Old Cottonfields Back Home”
“Be True to Your School”
“Please Let Me Wonder”
“Don’t Worry Baby”
“Little Deuce Coupe”
“I Get Around”
“Sloop John B”
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”
“Sail On Sailor”
“Heroes and Villains”
“In My Room”
“All This Is That”
“God Only Knows”
“That’s Why God Made the Radio”
“California Dreaming” (The Mamas and the Papas)
“Dance Dance Dance”
“All Summer Long”
“Help Me Rhonda”
“Rock and Roll Music” (Chuck Berry)
“Fun Fun Fun”