The Beach Boys Live at Chicago Theater May 22, 2012
This was the concert tour that was never supposed to happen. More importantly, this should have been the final nail in the coffin of the Beach Boys. Four of the five members will be seventy by September of this year and a valid argument can be made that their best days are behind them and by getting together for a reunion tour could do nothing but tarnish their legacy. However, the person making said argument would be doing so without having seen their 50th Anniversary tour currently making its way through the US. In case you haven't heard, there are a few things that differentiate this tour from their many in the previous decades. This is the first full fledged tour in more than thirty years to include Brian Wilson as a major contributor. Further, the set list consisted of forty-three songs. Let me repeat that; forty-three songs. I have never seen an artist perform this many songs over the course of one evening in all of the concerts I have witnessed. Knowing they cynics would be out in full force, the band set out to blow all expectations out of the water. As Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen have previously proven, even when you have an off night, it can be overshadowed by the sheer endurance of a performance. Go above and beyond and all can be forgiven. Fortunately for Chicago, the Beach Boys were compelling from the first note to the last note nearly three hours later. Their 50th Anniversary tour is not to be missed and truly a one-in-a-lifetime experience where one can see more than forty songs over nearly three hours.
The five remaining Beach Boys took to the stage complimented by ten additional musicians who dialed up the time machine for a trip to the past where the band breathtakingly delivered six songs in a mere thirteen minutes to open their second Chicago show. Opening with "Do it Again" the band performed "Little Honda", "Catch A Wave", "Hawaii", "Don't Back Down" and "Surfin' Safari" before they took a pause. At center stage was vocalist Mike Love, who did the most interacting with the crowd, told the story about the first song Brian Wilson wrote on his own before the band performed a lush rendition of "Surfer Girl", Wilson's first solo vocal performance of the evening. While each of the members had their fair share of time in the spotlight, whenever Wilson sang, the crowd directed their eyes to him with unblinking concentration. Each of the Beach Boys added something invaluable to their career and their legacy, but as time has progressed, Brian Wilson's genius has cemented itself into the history of music with not just Pet Sounds but with the recently released SMiLE which sat in the vaults for the better part of forty-plus years. His addition to the band for this tour gives the Beach Boys an added cache of respect. Further, the ten backing musicians revealed dimensions forgotten about. The meticulous song reproductions were more than magnificent, they were magical and yet the show never once felt perfunctory.
While Mike Love and Brian Wilson handled lead vocal duties for most of the songs, each of the members had their moment in the sun. Bruce Johnston had his solo spotlight with the wistful "Disney Girls". Guitarist Jeff Foskett provided some fine guitar work but more notably, his backing harmonies connected memories to the present day. He captures the spirit of Carl Wilson's vocals and melodies without coming off as a replacement. On "Don't Worry Baby" the crowd gave him a well deserved standing ovation for his wonderful lead vocal that was good enough to crawl under the surface of our skin. A pleasant surprise is the divergent set lists at every show. The show was sprinkled with a strong selection of covers performed with adroitness one may not have expected. "Cotton Fields" and "The I Kissed Her" found Al Jardine hitting the audience's sweet spots with his boyish vocal performance. "Rock and Roll Music", "Do You Wanna Dance" and "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" were more than audience pleasers. It's hard to imagine it, but fifty years ago the five men on the stage were exuberant teenagers who lived out their dreams in front of a mirror and for the first time in a long time, especially Mike Love who once again put his fan boy hat on.
While the Beach Boys have been a concert juggernaut for decades, this tour stands apart for the band's willingness to perform not just their biggest hits, but many deep album cuts that many have not heard in years. Rare songs such as "Marcella", "It's OK", "All This Is That" and "This Whole World" were performed with the same magnificence of their classics. "World" felt like something out of a dream as Wilson poignantly sung his heart out. The band even sung a new song, "That's Why God Made the Radio" from their forthcoming record of the same name (due to be released on June 5th). The song is culled from their 60's DNA and feels irrefutable and with a few more listens has the potential to be a modern classic. The second set opened up with "Add Some Music To Your Day" sung by Brian Wilson. He was surrounded by his four band mates around his white baby grand piano. It was a moment most people didn't feel would ever occur again and despite the fact that Carl and Dennis were not there, you couldn't help but become emotional over seeing these five men who are grandparents sing and perform in the same fashion they did more than fifty years back. Then there were the hits-"When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)", "Be True to Your School", "Little Deuce Coupe", "I Get Around", "Sloop John B", "Wouldn't It Be Nice", "Sail on, Sailor", "Heroes and Villains", "California Girls", "Help Me, Rhonda", "Good Vibrations" and "Surfin' USA". Do I need to even explain the wonder and splendor these performances induced? Even "Kokomo" was splendid. For the evening's final two songs, "Barbara Ann" and "Fun, Fun, Fun", Brian Wilson even came out to the front of the stage with a bass wrapped around him. The pacing and performances were so strong-willed and sentimental; you couldn't help but have an out-of-body experience. You literally could feel the sun beams radiate your skin under a perfect blue sky next to the ocean. I don't believe any set list by any artist could completely satisfy everyone, the Beach Boys came dangerously close. The music evoked sights and sound of malt shops, blue skies, surf shops and a time when gas guzzlers were dreamy. The music takes me to a place and time I never knew and that's as powerful as music can be.
As my time on this Earth grows shorter, there will be two songs I will forever remember from this show. Carl and Dennis Wilson made an appearance no one could forget. They were represented by pre-recorded vocals which were complimented by a fifteen piece backing band. This top-tier band brought the moving ballad "Forever" (sung by Dennis) and the epic hymn "God Only Knows" (sung by Carl) to life in ways no one could have expected. Done by almost any other act it would come off as a cheap trick, but there was a deep moving resonance to the back-to-back songs from the departed Wilson brothers. If the music wasn't enough to move you, then watching their older brother Brian was. We're all confronted with death in our life but it doesn't make it any easier. For Brian Wilson, his triumph over illness and adversity is one of rock n' roll's greatest rebirths, but as I watch him gave upon the screen at the back of the stage upon his younger brothers, I saw a gentle soul who misses his brothers in a way that can never be expressed. Whenever I hear "God Only Knows", a flurry of emotions floats to the surface; I think of loved ones that have left this Earth. I also think about those I am closest to and how I want them to know how vital they have been to my existence. I think about a close high school friend whose young son is fighting cancer and how I want so badly for him to be cured. Hearing Carl Wilson's voice on top of the lush arrangements of the surviving Beach Boys provides one with lenses to see life with greater clarity, allowing us to not just appreciate life's simplicities but to love better. These songs are dotted lines to our past that connect all of us. Family, friends and lovers bonded over this music in the past and more importantly, they find a relation to it today. The Beach Boys 50th Anniversary tour isn't about escapism, it's about reconnecting with that inner child you once had. Their music is as powerful now than it ever has been because it continues to set our minds free and while nostalgia should never be denied, the Beach Boys are reminding us that rock n' roll isn't defined by age, instruments or even songs, it's a mindset. As I looked around the crowd, I saw audience members from the age of three to eighty-three and they all had one very distinctive physical trait- irrefutable and infectious smiles.
The Beach Boys Live at Chicago Theater May 22, 2012