TUCSON, Ariz. — Let’s not make too much of the fact that the Beach Boys kicked off their 50th anniversary tour on casino grounds, nowhere near the beach, on a day that hit 105, with gusts of dry wind blowing in from the surrounding Arizona desert — not a wave, T-bird or little surfer girl in sight.
After all, the band, touring for the first time in decades with co-founders Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine, as well as longtime voice Bruce Johnston and early member David Marks, transcended the literal summer ages ago in service of the metaphorical kind, one that celebrated Southern California life and put sound to a cultural vibe.
This is one reason why at Casino del Sol on the Yaqui reservation, the band, augmented by a dozen instrumentalists and vocalists, was able to convincingly sing about summertime joys, fears and frustrations even though most of the remaining Boys have been doing this for four decades and are themselves approaching proverbial wintertime.
The first of a five-month, 56-show tour that would challenge a band half its age, the Beach Boys will travel the arenas, festivals and outdoor amphitheaters of America (and, later in the year, Europe and Asia) offering a version of this concert.
If opening night is any indication, the Beach Boys will celebrate not only their sound, but the music that gave birth to it and was inspired by it. They performed songs by Phil Spector, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and the Mamas and the Papas, among others, while images of the band in its glory days cascaded across the big screen.
And if Wilson’s distant onstage presence in Tucson is a hint, it’s going to be a long summer for him.
Wilson, the sole living brother from the trio that included Dennis and Carl, has avoided the Beach Boys stage like the plague — while his revolutionary aesthetic has been reverently honored by new generations.
The quintet of clean-cut, handsome young men from Hawthorne, Calif., sent out a four-song demo that put sound and lyrics to the uniquely L.A. lifestyle of beaches, breezes, bikinis and muscle cars. Two of those songs, “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfer Girl,” have become singalong classics, and the band offered them early in the set.
These hits set the course for much that followed: from “Help Me, Rhonda” to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to “Little Deuce Coupe,” the Beach Boys brought the massive Wilson production sound to life. While the principals played along — Wilson on white grand piano, Jardine and Marks on guitar, Johnston on keyboards, and Love on vocals — a bevy of young backing musicians pushed forth driving rhythms (three percussionists), guitar texture (at times, as many as five guitarists), keyboards (three of them), and a virtual choir of male voices filling songs whose age and design has rendered them exquisite antiquities.
The music they presented embodies a SoCal, endless summer archetype.
The band understands this and offers evidence of this spirit in the Hawaiian shirts they wear — and in the songs they still sing. When Love, whose warm, confident voice can still hit the notes effortlessly, sang his 1964 love letter to a motorcycle, “Little Honda,” you could hear the wind blowing through the spokes. When Jardine harmonized on “Catch a Wave,” his joy was infectious, especially when he pumped his fist and pointed at Wilson.
But Wilson didn’t seem to be having much fun. Sitting behind his piano stone-faced, he feigned a smile a few times, and had to be nudged into acknowledging the crowd when they rose to give him his first ovation during his falsetto-intoned version of Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.”
He appeared to be residing within the Malibu of his mind at times, then ambivalent if not miserable in other moments. There’s a reason why he stopped touring with the Beach Boys: He obviously doesn’t like it.
One of the few times he tapped his foot and bounced his torso was during “Sloop John B,” which opened the second, and much more vibrant, of the two sets. One of the night’s high points, the band presented “Sloop” with the same rush-of-wind exuberance of the recording, a sharp reminder of a band at its peak. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was equally inspiring, as were the odes to departed brothers Dennis and Carl, both of whom duetted from beyond via recordings — Carl’s lead on “God Only Knows” was gorgeous.
From the beaches in their youth to the casinos in their retirement years, there is certainly something bittersweet going on. Anyone who understands both nostalgia and the aging process will no doubt have an idea of the frayed edges, the relentlessness of singing the same songs over and over again for five decades, as Jardine, Love and Johnston have done. They have combated this by adding vocalists who can hit the notes they no longer can — singer/ guitarist/ bandleader Jeff Foskett is the unsung workhorse of this show, who covers for Wilson on the more difficult notes.
Long ago turned men, the Beach Boys on the opening night of an impressively relentless schedule did what you’d expect, and did it quite well. Wilson and the band’s art, those interlocking harmonic voices, exquisite arrangements and that summer feeling were celebrated 100 miles from Phoenix, where in 1962 “Surfin’ Safari” got its first substantial airplay.
Even if the sight of five aging men offered visual confirmation that summer does indeed end, and winter can get a little tough, it doesn’t mean you can’t handle this reality, as the Beach Boys did, with both pride and grace.
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