Saturday, August 15, 2015

Concert Review: The Beach Boys, Chautauqua Institution, NY

As Mike Love, frontman of The Beach Boys, prepared for a concert a week ago Friday night at the Chautauqua Institution, did he know that the local cinema was showing Love and Mercy? The question crossed my mind as I listened at the perimeter of Chautauqua’s famous Amphitheater to the band’s soundcheck a few hours before the show—and it has continued to obsess me since, as I struggle with my feelings about the performance by this legendary band.

Legendary—and much loved. “The Beach Boys got me through some tough times in my life,” another longtime fan suddenly burst out to me as we listened, with a few other Chautauqua visitors, before the show. The group itself experienced tough times in the form of main creative force Brian Wilson’s nervous breakdown while recording Smile, as recounted in Love and Mercy.

How much of the movie depiction of Love—as the band member who pressured Brian the hardest to stick to the formula that had brought the group success—is true? Hard for an outsider to say for sure. But the dark future implied in the movie for the group—that, in repeating its tried-and-true formula, it would become creatively dead—has been manifestly borne out by events.

I had decidedly mixed feelings before the show about attending this concert at all. There was the undeniable fact that this version of the group was not the one I had grown up with. Death had taken two of the Wilson brothers, Dennis (in a 1983 drowning accident) and Carl (from lung cancer, in 1998); the third and most crucial Wilson, Brian, and neighbor and fellow founding Beach Boy Al Jardine, have not toured or recorded with the group since the 50th-anniversary “reunion” in 2012. That has left the Beach Boys in the hands of longtime hands Love and keyboardist Bruce Johnston (Brian’s concert stand-in since the 1960s).

Dangers clearly loom when an artist veers in the opposite direction and barely acknowledges the material that won him a fan base to begin with—something I realized last night at BergenPAC in Englewood, NJ, when Todd Rundgren performed a set so awful that it could have been the kind of bad performance art notoriously perpetrated by Joaquin Phoenix on David Letterman. So that made me grateful, in one way, that Mike Love and company showed some appreciation for its loyal audience.

In particular, the Beach Boys have also shown appreciation to Chautauqua. The group has been stopping there on tour every couple of years since the late 1990s. At a time when the inability of the Amphitheater to accommodate many popular acts has become an issue in the fight over its fate, that willingness to return had to be deeply appreciated by the programmers at Chautauqua.

Love and the rest of the group mined a full 50 songs for the three-hour show, and it’s a tribute to the depth of their catalogue that other well-loved tunes (e.g., “Sail On, Sailor”) didn’t make the final cut. With hits so old and so familiar, the options for making them sound fresh are limited.

To some extent, the tragedies involving the Wilson brothers that initiated the considerable personnel changes in the band have, ironically, helped by adding new voices and musicians.

Guitarist Jeff Foskett (who has toured off and on with the Beach Boys since the 1980s) earned a well-deserved standing ovation for the falsetto on the lead vocal for “Don’t Worry, Baby,” and Scott Totten, introduced by Love as the band’s “musical director,” proved equally adept, if not flamboyant, on his guitar.

But Love used video projections on giant screens behind the band to re-cast the songs. In some ways, this device worked, even though it involved doubling down on the notion that the Beach Boys are what is euphemistically known in the industry as a “heritage” act. (Film and photos from the group’s heyday, in the early 1960s, underscored how much they were indelibly of a particular time and spirit—the confident California of the early postwar period—in the same way that the Andrews Sisters were in WWII.)

But other old chestnuts chosen—and, especially, their presentation—left something to be desired. At age 74, having been married five times, how could Love sing with a straight face “When I Grow Up to Be a Man” (unless, perhaps, by dueting with one of his several grandchildren)?

Worse was a tune that Love prefaced by saying it constituted a tribute to those “in uniform.” Audience members who regarded it as a tip of the hat to the armed forces were soon disabused of that notion, when the video of “Be True to Your School” featured a nonstop succession of cheerleaders. The idea of a septuagenarian taking such unabashed interest in females five and even six decades his junior can only be described as creepy.

Over the years, never completely out of the group’s grasp, another alternative has existed, however lonely it has seemed at times. When Brian’s psychological issues proved overwhelming in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Carl stepped in to try to fill the gap by taking more of the creative initiative on Sunflower, Surf’s Up, 20/20 and Holland. While not as successful as their earlier work, these did yield some marvelous songs, including “Add Some Music to Your Day” and “Sail On, Sailor.”

The other alternative, of course, was offered by Brian. Pet Sounds has been celebrated as an aural masterpiece that forced the Beatles to step up their game with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but more fundamentally, it represented Brian’s recognition that the group could not keep singing forever about hot rods and surfing—and the need to “Be True to Your School.” It has stayed relevant because the theme of this first rock concept album—the exhilaration and heartbreak of adult love—can be sung and appreciated by anyone of sufficient age. 

The infrequent solo work that Brian has released over the years—notably, the CD Love and Mercy—was composed in the same vein. His current separation from the group condemns them to a continuous time loop that cuts them off from any contact with the future.

And yet…We can’t leave the current incarnation of The Beach Boys like this. Given the advancing age of Love and his old (and new) colleagues, this might be the last iteration of America’s most influential rock vocalists that I’ll ever see. It was a joy to be reminded not just of their irresistible ubiquitous hits (“Help Me, Rhonda,” “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Good Vibrations”) but also of their less-noticed gems that any other musicians would be delighted to have created (e.g., “Please Let Me Wonder,” “Disney Girls” and “Getcha Back”).

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