A 50th Anniversary tour could be seen as a fairly historic occasion.
In the Beach Boys' case, the anniversary feels more like a footnote to the real news.
The great Brian Wilson is back on the road with his long-estranged bandmates for a full-scale tour that launched on Tuesday, April 24, in Tucson. This year's Grammys marked his first performance with the group since 1996. And he'd made very few appearances with them since 1989.
But there he was, Tuesday night, sharing the AVA Amphitheater stage at Casino Del Sol with Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston and guitarist David Marks, whose original stint in the Beach Boys was less than two years but included the recording of the first four albums.
And it wasn't just historic. It was great, with 10 additional musicians fleshing out the Wall of Sound, some drawn from Brian Wilson's touring band, the others drawn from Mike Love's latest version of the Beach Boys, with John Cowsill -- of the Cowsills! -- pounding out the beat with the enthusiasm beats like that deserve.
Some would argue that those other guys were propping up the principals, especially Jeff Foskett, who handled almost all the key falsetto parts, including what would have been Wilson's entire lead vocal on "Don't Worry Baby."
But that would be missing the point.
This was a fully integrated ensemble performance of the Beach Boys' music that managed to capture the magic of those classic songs while allowing the principal members of the group to shine thanks to the musical direction of sax man Paul Von Mertens and guitarist Scott Totten. With all those extra people singing, they could duplicate the stacks of vocals and the individual components of that Wall of Sound, from flute and sax to jingle bells, harmonica and that weird little whistle on "Heroes and Villains."
After setting the tone with a recording of "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" by Wilson's heroes, the Four Freshmen, Cowsill kicked things off with the unmistakable intro of "Do It Again" as the other members of the Beach Boys took the stage. It was the perfect way to start the show: "Well, I've been thinkin' 'bout all the places we've surfed and danced and all the faces we've missed so let's get back together and do it again."
They played 43 songs in two sets with a brief intermission and a three-song encore. After following "Do It Again" with "Catch a Wave," they threw the first of many curve balls, "Don't Back Down." And then it was back to the crowd-pleasing staples with "Surfin' Safari," their breakthrough single, and "Surfer Girl," which featured Brian Wilson's first lead vocal of the night, with Foskett taking the falsetto parts.
There were plenty of hits (and songs that felt like hits because of their inclusion on that "Endless Summer" album ) in the first set, from "The Little Girl I Once Knew" and "Wendy" to "When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)" and a set-closing medley of car songs ("Little Deuce Coupe," "409," "Shut Down" and "I Get Around"). That left plenty of time for such lesser-known gems as Wilson's wistful "This Whole World," Johnston's bittersweet "Disney Girls," which gets better with age, and a breathtaking "Please Let Me Wonder" with a gorgeous wall of harmonies supporting Wilson's aching lead.
Jardine took his turn on lead vocals for "Then I Kissed Her" and "Cottonfields," the second of which earned a standing ovation.
Marks didn't sing any lead but his scrappy guitar work stole the show on more than one occasion, perfectly recapturing the post-Chuck Berry essence of those early Beach Boys solos.
Wilson seemed uncomfortable at times behind his white piano but he tended to rise to the challenge on his few turns in the vocal spotlight. "This Whole World" and "You're So Good To Me" weren't flawless but they were distinctly Brian Wilson.
As for Love, his lead vocals were just what they needed to be, relying more on personality to put a song across, which is exactly what those parts require. And he still works the crowd more than his bandmates. Introducing "Be True to Your School," he said the song they were about to do was "probably the most patriotic song ever written and recorded," going on to explain that "the song in question is about people in uniform and, in particular women in uniform."
Cheerleading uniforms, of course.
And then before the song began, he added, "We should have our heads examined trying to do some of these songs after 50 years."
If Brian seemed withdrawn at times in the first set, he came back from intermission looser, snapping his fingers while singing the opening verse of "Sloop John B" and then gesturing like he was shoveling food into his mouth when he got to the verse about the cook who got the fits and threw away all his grits.
Another nicely executed "Pet Sounds" classic, "Wouldn't It Be Nice," was followed by a touching tribute to the late great Dennis Wilson, Brian's brother, who died in 1983. They rolled video footage of Dennis singing one of his originals, "Forever," while the Beach Boys sang and played along. It struck just the right tone and may have been the emotional highlight of the show.
Before the second set was through, they did the same from Brian's other brother, Carl, who died in 1998, accompanying footage of him singing lead on yet another "Pet Sounds" song, "God Only Knows."
Other highlights of the second set included "Sail On Sailor," the "SMiLE" arrangement of "Heroes and Villains," a gorgeous "In My Room," which featured one of Brian's most effective vocals of the night, and the truly obscure "All This is That."
They gave fans a taste of an upcoming single called "That's Why God Made the Radio," hopefully singing about a new generation of radio listeners. And they finished big with a steady succession of crowd-pleasers, starting with "California Girls" and making their way through such obvious highlights as "Dance, Dance, Dance," "All Summer Long," "Help Me, Rhonda," "Barbara Ann" and "Surfin' U.S.A."
That still left three huge songs to fill the encore -- '80s comeback single "Kokomo," a rousing "Good Vibrations" and "Fun, Fun, Fun," which featured Cowsill and percussionist Nelson Bragg going nuts on the ending, effectively bringing the night to a celebratory finish.
After the show, Love said he thought it was a spectacular start to the 50th anniversary tour.
"It was special," he said of being back on stage with his old bandmates, "especially with Dennis and Carl being represented."
For Marks, who left the band in 1963, it was a very special night.
"When we get together, we revert back to the old days," he said after the show. "It's like the '60s again. We're all in disbelief. We're just so grateful that it came about and we're able to play like this after such a long period of time. I think the Beach Boys are truly blessed to be able to do this."
And although it can be hard to tell at times, that spirit seemed to carry over to their enigmatic leader. As Von Mertens said after the show, "I think vocally, Brian sounded really, really strong. And I think being with his childhood pals really kind of sparked him and inspired him to sing harder and really nail it. He was belting."
"Do It Again"
"Catch a Wave"
"Don't Back Down"
"The Little Girl I Once Knew"
"Then I Kissed Her"
"This Whole World"
"Why Do Fools Fall In Love"
"When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)"
"You're So Good To Me"
"Be True To Your School"
"Please Let Me Wonder"
"Don't Worry Baby"
"Little Deuce Coupe"
"I Get Around"
"Sloop John B"
"Wouldn't It Be Nice"
"Sail On Sailor"
"Heroes and Villains"
"In My Room"
"All This Is That"
"God Only Knows"
"That's Why God Made the Radio"
"Dance, Dance, Dance"
"All Summer Long"
"Help Me, Rhonda"
"Rock and Roll Music"
"Do You Wanna Dance?"
"Fun, Fun, Fun"