By Ron Vaccaro
Go to any Beach Boys concert these days and it’s easy to think if you closed your eyes, you could be back in the mid-1960s again. Mike Love, Bruce Johnston and a stellar touring band sound that good.
And for three nights in their native Southern California, as part of an accurately named “July 4th Fireworks Spectacular with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra,” you could easily be transported back to the early 1960s even with your eyes open. (This 41-year-old will need to take his brain’s word for it.) In matching grey suits evoking images from over a half-century ago, the 62-year-old ‘America’s Band’ took the stage at the 101-year-old venue and belted out hit after hit after hit, the music as timeless and majestic as the Hollywood Hills that provided the backdrop to these quintessential summer evenings.
These shows would have been great were they merely a fun nostalgia trip. But for me, and I’d argue many if not most of the nearly 50,000 people who saw the band over three nights, the music was as relevant, and needed today as its ever been. This is in no small part thanks to the spirit, joy and skill of the musicians who bring it to life. The experience was a particular treat for me – I am from southern Connecticut, but thanks to my dad, I grew up listening primarily to The Beach Boys, with a little Beatles mixed in. I knew where Hawthorne, California was long before I knew many of the cities and towns that surrounded my home. I’ve seen them in various configurations dozens of times in the last thirty years but seeing this band in this place was something I deemed once-in-a-lifetime, but now I’m left hoping it’s not, that more chances will arise.
While a typical Beach Boys show would have two sets, and well north of thirty songs, these unique performances were shorter, clocking in at 22 songs, as they served as the second set of the night following a patriotic medley from the Orchestra (which was terrific) and a brief intermission.
This configuration of the band really has an emphasis on an exuberant stage presence – bringing some of the greatest music on the planet to life, and that should be a fun exercise in addition to being the result of hard work, and the fruits of both are clearly and consistently on display.
Mike Love at 82 outworks performers half his age. His unmistakable voice cut through the beginning of the set’s “Do It Again,” “Surfin’ Safari,” and “Catch a Wave,” during which we first get introduced by name to one of the band’s backing members, Tim Bonhomme, whose rock-solid work on keyboards has been a foundation of the live experience for over twenty years now.
“Surfer Girl” was an early highlight of the night, with cell phone flashlights poignantly illuminating the entire Hollywood Bowl, accompanying the terrific vocal harmonies, with particular shine from Brian Eichenberger and Bruce Johnston. Eichenberger then delivered a vibrant rendition of “Don’t Worry Baby,” with falsettos that radiated all the way to the top of Hollywood Bowl and fueled the hot-wiring of the Hot Rods that followed, like “Little Deuce Coupe” and “I Get Around.” The orchestra, conducted by Thomas Wilkins, added tremendous sonic depth all night and particularly in this stretch.
Special guest percussionist John Stamos had some fun play leading into “Be True to Your School”. Over the years, I’ve been accompanied at shows by people whose reactions to guest appearances by the likes of Stamos, or Mark McGrath (who appeared at the July 4th show) have ranged from tolerant to the sole reason they went to the show. Wherever one falls on that spectrum, there is no denying the genuine emotion and passion Stamos has for this music and these musicians. That energy is unavoidably infectious, and someone at my table remarked that she only came for Stamos but was now determined to see the band again, even as his gag-drumroll to “Be True to Your School,” which Love so aptly referred to as a “virtual anthem” may still be echoing through the LA canyons.
Drummer Jon Bolton joined the band this spring and is a ‘bolt’ of energy and joy for sure and led a gritty performance of ‘Darlin’. Bolton, along with bassist Keith Hubacher, really drove the rocking rhythm section throughout the night.
Johnston introduced “Disney Girls” as his ‘back to the future’ song, reminiscing what times were like when he was 15, not into the type of ‘contact high’ that would have resulted from a group of teenagers in the crowd at a 1970s Carnegie Hall concert. The ‘back to the future’ characterization seems particularly appropriate on nights like these, and Johnston’s vocals were spot on, as were the backing instruments.
Another ‘highlight’ came after Stamos led a soulful “Forever.” A brief video that included sound from Brian Wilson, Love, and Paul McCartney was played, talking about the significance of the Pet Sounds album and then “God Only Knows” in particular, which went right into lead vocals from Christian Love, whose efforts more than met the moment. “Sloop John B” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” seamlessly followed, the latter having really energized the crowd in advance of the “state song”, “California Girls”, which showed off the richness of the band’s sound, with a nod to John Wedemeyer, who brings a lot of gravitas to the lead guitar position.
“Kokomo,” now thirty-five years old, is an appropriately placed late-set choice, it showcases so many aspects of the band (and on these nights, the orchestral accompaniment) from Randy Leago on the ‘sax-o-f-f-f-ono’ to the perfectly complementing lead vocals from Love and silky smooth high parts from Eichenberger. A powerful “Good Vibrations” led well into a 10-minute fireworks display accompanied by the orchestra playing patriotic staples with precision that matches their efforts to be in sync with the band all night (credit all around to those who worked to pull that off).
Post-fireworks, a rollicking “Fun Fun Fun” closes the show, including a terrific falsetto from Johnston at the end. As a kid, that song made me wish I could own a T-bird when I was old enough to drive, but it was Ford who took the T-bird away 18 years ago. Now, “Fun Fun Fun” is almost a perfectly contradicting closer to the night. On the one hand a fitting capper to an evening full of just that – it’s impossible to leave anything but satisfied, full of appreciation and gratitude and joy for the performance Love, Johnston and the whole band put on. But I’m also determined to make sure my fun isn’t all through – and inevitably I end up looking at the schedule, and buying tickets to another upcoming show, and it is always a particular thrill when I get to turn the tables on my parents and treat them to an evening with The Beach Boys, in order to thank them for turning me onto The Beach Boys. Back to the future indeed.
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