The Beach Boys When Memory Sings Harmony
What amazing songs. That’s the lingering impression from Tuesday night’s Beacon Theater concert by the reunited Beach Boys, who until this year had not performed with Brian Wilson since 1996.
Over half a century after three brothers (Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson), a cousin (Mike Love) and a high school classmate (Al Jardine) started a band in 1961 in Hawthorne, Calif., the surviving original Beach Boys have put schisms, battles for credit and lawsuits behind them to perform songs that are no less startling for their Top 40 familiarity. The Beach Boys are in their 60s and 70s now, and it showed, but memory and a knowing backup band supplied what mortal performers cannot.
More than 40 songs breezed by in the concert, nearly every one packing musicianly marvels into its two or three minutes. The Beach Boys performed the obligatory hits along with more obscure songs like “The Little Girl I Once Knew,” a flopped 1965 single with unexpected pauses, sudden harmonic swerves and, Mr. Love said afterward, “nine million vocal parts.” Another oddity was “All This Is That,” a song that Mr. Love, Mr. Jardine and Carl Wilson wrote about transcendental meditation. They had a new one too: “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” with echoes of both “Surfer Girl” and “Sail On, Sailor” carrying lines like “It’s paradise when I lift up my antennae/Receiving your signal like a prayer.” It’s the title track of a new album due in June.
The current Beach Boys also include two longtime associates. Bruce Johnston, who has been in and out of the group since 1965, sang his song “Disney Girls” and seized the swooping high vocal line in “Fun, Fun, Fun.” The guitarist David Marks, who briefly replaced Mr. Jardine in 1962 and has performed in latter-day Beach Boys lineups, joined the vocal harmonies and fired off rowdy surf-rock leads.
They were bolstered strategically by the band of Beach Boys experts that helped Brian Wilson return to regular touring. Jeff Foskett, a guitarist, claimed most of the high, pure falsetto vocals, and took over the lead of “Don’t Worry Baby.”
The Beach Boys played under a video screen showing images of surfboards, cars and bikini-clad women. But if the Beach Boys had been only a surf-rock band, they would have disappeared when surf-rock lost its novelty. Brian Wilson, the band’s songwriting and production genius, had far more to offer. Mr. Wilson, sometimes collaborating with Mr. Love, started out writing songs that invented California as a teenager’s utopia, but he matured rapidly and idiosyncratically.
He was both a mirror and a shaper of 1960s America, as the Beach Boys’ songs moved from the buoyancy and innocence of “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Fun Fun Fun” to the introversion of “In My Room” and the sweeping ambition (and seesawing tempos) of “Heroes and Villains.”
Even when Mr. Wilson was writing songs like “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” his music was already merging, and extending, the rock ’n’ roll of doo-wop and Chuck Berry, the jazzy vocal harmonies of the Four Freshmen, the melodic grace of Tin Pan Alley and the urge to pack multiple key changes and surreal transitions into the brevity of a single.
Yet while the technical splendor of his songwriting was one of the Beach Boys’ lasting achievements — one that echoes down through generations of tuneful studio experimenters — this wasn’t a concert to get too technical about. It was a show of youthful exuberance and inspiration battling the effects of time.
Mr. Love was the lead singer for most songs, and memory filled out his thinning voice. Mr. Jardine, who sang lead on “Help Me Rhonda” but few other Beach Boys hits, was the heartiest among the band’s original singers. The set list was more egalitarian than it needed to be; Mr. Jardine sang “Help Me Rhonda” — along with most of the audience — but also got “And Then I Kissed Her” and “Cotton Fields” when there could have been more Beach Boys originals. (Meanwhile John Stamos, the actor, who introduced the band, grew intrusive in return visits to the stage, sitting in on drums and clowning on guitar.) The Beach Boys also accompanied video clips of the Wilson brothers no longer alive, Dennis (whose video clip malfunctioned) and Carl, who was heard in “God Only Knows.”