(27 Jul 2013: Weesner Family Amphitheater Apple Valley, MN)
I may be a prisoner of the moment. I may still be riding the emotional high, still intoxicated by those sublime sights and sounds. I may be saying so because I want it to be so or because the worst-case scenario I imagined – a glorified tribute show – so quickly became a distant concern. These are all plausible explanations. Or it’s the case that I actually did see the most memorable, most fulfilling, most fun – in short, the best - concert of my life on the evening of July 27 at the Weesner Family Amphitheater in Apple Valley, MN, courtesy of Al Jardine, David Marks, and the inimitable, heaven-sent Brian Wilson.
In no particular order, here are five reasons why this (partial) Beach Boys reunion show may be tops in my book.
1) Seeing Brian Wilson smile – Mawkish, I know, but it really was a powerful experience, especially as a devoted fan who knows what Brian has overcome to reach this point. He could just as easily not be with us. Instead, he’s alive, he’s still recording music, and he’s still touring. What a blessing. At the show, Brian seemed as comfortable and engaged as you could reasonably hope for. There were times when, seated at his piano, he would survey the adoring, effusive crowd and positively beam. I remember thinking to myself, “I just took part in a Brian Wilson smile. I had a hand in sending good vibrations his way.” It was very rewarding. It felt like I was giving back, however modestly and ephemerally, for the countless moments of happiness that he’s brought into my life. And I wasn’t alone in these sentiments. That sense of gratitude and love was a staple of the evening. After “Surfer Girl”, Brian noted that it was the first song he ever wrote. The crowd roared. After “God Only Knows”, which Brian dedicated to his late brother Carl, everyone instantly rose to their feet for a spirited ovation. Then because it felt right, we gave him another one some thirty seconds later. Amidst this outpouring, Al Jardine turned to his longtime band-mate and remarked, “You deserve it, Brian.” The concert was both a jubilant party and a two-hour appreciation of the Beach Boys, Brian foremost.
2) The superlative set list – It was just shy of 40 songs, which allowed for an incredibly satisfying mix of untouchable classics, deep cuts, and more recent material. Brian and co. didn’t pander to the greatest hits crowd or go digging too far down into the lesser-known reaches of their songbook. They basically played everything you’d expect plus another ten or so tunes that added topnotch variety. It was a perfect balance. The first set opened with a run of household entries, from “California Girls” to “Little Deuce Coupe” to the pristinely beautiful tandem of “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl”. But before the concert could turn into “Sounds of Summer: The Live Experience” (which still would’ve been amazing), the Boys switched gears with “Ol’ Man River” / “Cotton Fields” and “Little Bird”. Set two brought together masterpieces from Pet Sounds and Smile, some groovin’ early ‘70s jams (“Sail On, Sailor” and “Marcella”), and a small serving of quality selections from the last decade-plus (“Your Imagination”, with its nimble daydream melodies, was a standout). Then they revved up on the encore with a string of giddy sing-alongs (“Barbara Ann”, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, “Fun, Fun, Fun”) only to close the evening with the plaintive moonlit beauty of “Summer’s Gone” (which is off the Beach Boys’ most recent album, That’s Why God Made the Radio). Any and all complaints about this breathtaking program would only amount to blinkered hair-splitting. It was one all-time great after another.
3) Hearing Brian Wilson sing – While it’s true that his voice has declined over the years, Brian still evokes the same feelings when he sings. He still transports you to those places of thrilling innocence (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”), colorful oddity (“Heroes and Villains”), and earnest solitude (“In My Room”). He still sings in a way that can summon contradictory emotions: restlessness and a yearning for home, a desire for freedom and the need for meaningful intimacy. In the pop context, Brian is still where beauty and wonder intersect most richly. When he was at the helm that night, I occasionally closed my eyes and just basked in the warmth and nourishing familiarity of his vocals. As expected, “God Only Knows” was a highlight. During the performance, I kept thinking about all the memories that might have been passing through his head – memories of his late brothers, Carl and Dennis, memories of the historic triumphs and wrenching failures that defined the Beach Boys, memories of the personal demons that nearly ended him. Mixed in there, I suspect, was a deep thankfulness for the present.
4) The revelation that was Al Jardine – Donning an electric white sport coat, Jardine was the unexpected star of the show. From the jump, he emitted a very dignified kind of energy and magnetism. His presence was sort of hiply avuncular – never too this and never too that, just cool and knowing. Every time he told a story in between songs, my ears perked up. And his voice? It hasn’t aged a day. It’s still boyish but not too boyish, a tad unpolished around the edges but still very inviting. He nailed his signature showcases, chief among them “Help Me Rhonda”, “Then I Kissed Her” (which doubled as an important history lesson, signifying Phil Spector’s major influence on Brian), “Ol’ Man River” / “Cotton Fields”, and “California Saga: California”. And though I’d be lying if I said there were no downsides to Mike Love’s absence – the contrast between his nasal register and Brian’s soaring falsetto was a key element of the Beach Boys’ repertoire - Jardine filled in with elan on harmonies and other leads. An additional note about Mr. Unlikable himself, Mike Love: his absence meant 1) no “Kokomo” and 2) there wasn’t even a hint of tension or ill will on stage. When Love decided to continue touring as the Beach Boys with just Bruce Johnston (Why, Bruce, why?), he took the bad vibes with him. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone, Brian in particular, was more at ease under these circumstances as opposed to last year’s 50th anniversary tour.
5) David Marks and the backing band – The “lost Beach Boy”, David Marks, was far more than just a temporary substitute for Jardine in 1962. He was featured on the band’s first four records, and his driving guitar style (paired with Carl Wilson’s) helped Brian transition from folk-oriented to rock ‘n’ roll compositions. Performing some 50 years later, the tall and lean Marks soloed with swagger, held his own on vocals, and engaged the crowd with stories, one of which was about the time him he fell from a tree and broke his arm. As kids, the Wilson brothers and Marks were neighbors. Dennis eventually caught wind of the mishap and did what any true friend in that situation would do: he chopped down the offending tree. The amusing anecdote turned out to be a natural set-up for Marks’ ace treatment of “Little Bird” (“Little bird up in a tree…”), an acid-folk gem that Dennis wrote and originally sang. Between last year’s reunion bonanza and the current tour, Marks really seems to be getting his proper due. And, finally, what a superb backing band! Composed of the Wondermints, a power pop act from L.A. that has worked closely with Brian over the years, and a handful of other musicians, who, like the Wondermints, were involved with the resuscitation of Smile in 2004, the support players were the well-oiled engine that powered the performance. They produced a clean, punchy sound; they delivered expert harmonies (see “Our Prayer” and many more); and they even handled some lead vocal duties, acquitting themselves with aplomb. The hyper-talented Darian Sahanaja turned “Darlin’” into a show-stopper, as did Probyn Gregory with “Sail On, Sailor”. And though it was sad to see Brian relinquish his primary role on “Don’t Worry Baby”, Jeffrey Foskett’s falsetto turn was a stirring tribute. Top to bottom, they were the total package.
When I left the concert, my voice was hoarse from one ecstatic sing-along after another; my face was sore and stretched from the helpless smile that took mere seconds to form; and my heart was full, all because I had just watched three Beach Boys, backed by a crew of top-shelf talent, play some of the most treasured, indelible, beautiful, and joyous songs in the pop catalog - songs that I wouldn’t care to live without for too long. If something ever trumps this experience, I can’t wait to be there.