The Beach Boys, or rather The Beach Boy (Mike Love, who owns the name) and friends, have been touring for over four decades and perform around 150 shows a year. For three nights with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Love and co. get together and do it again.
After a gentle instrumental medley by the orchestra during which everyone tries to work out what songs are being represented, my first thought as the band shuffles onto the stage to the strains of 1961 hit Surfin' is how terrible the acoustics are. I've seen plenty of shows in Hamer Hall and everything about the sound has always been flawless - part of the hall's well-crafted design. Discussing this during the intermission, my partner suggests the mixing could've been adjusted for people with hearing aids. Suddenly everything makes sense.
It's not as if people are here for the music anyway. Not really. Aside from the stoic presence of the MSO subscribers - for once some of the youngest members of the audience - the hall is mostly full of women for whom hot flushes are a distant memory and men in suits wearing leis who are here to let their hair down in a non-threatening way.
It's easy to poke fun at ageing musicians and their groupies, and don't for a moment think this reviewer is above it, but let's be clear - the show is a lot of fun, I enjoyed it and so did the rest of the crowd. After opening the show with a few songs affirming The Beach Boys' early songwriting range (Surfin', Surfing Safari, Surfer Girl), Mike Love introduced himself and Bruce Johnston, who sort of counts as a Beach Boy - he replaced Brian Wilson on tour in 1965 when Wilson retreated to focus on writing. After three songs and in good humour, Love said 'now we'd like to take an intermission, but unfortunately we can't.'
Apart from Love and Johnston, the rest of the lineup - Scott Totten, Randell Kirsch, Tim Bonhomme, John Cowsill and Christian Love - do a fine job of rounding out the band and it's surprising how well they can replicate the Beach Boys' trademark four-part harmony. Love and Johnston on the other hand are hit and miss. It's fun fun fun until someone takes the backing vocals away.
The best singer by far in the current lineup is drummer John Cowsill. The moment he began belting out Darlin' was the first time in the show when things came alive and the audience heard the music for real instead of subconsciously replacing it in their head with a copy of the original radio edit. Cowsill also sang Help Me Rhonda, Cotton Fields and Heroes and Villains, the latter especially a fantastic song, sadly hampered considerably by a muffled and muted middle section. However, the whole band acquitted themselves admirably for The Ballad of Old Betsy and a haunting acapella performance of Their Hearts Were Full of Spring.
The MSO had more of a chance to shine in the second half, beginning the set with a beautifully soaring instrumental rendition of In My Room and earning huge applause during the swelling opening bars of God Only Knows. The orchestra also helped bring to life hits such as Wouldn't It Be Nice and Sloop John B (the latter was once my favourite childhood song). For sheer quality musical performance though the best song of the evening without a doubt was the Mamas and Papas classic California Dreamin', a song which melds dark vocal harmony and swirling orchestral emotion into a sublime soundscape.
Overall, it's a fun, casual evening. Slightly tragic, but nobody cares. As someone in their mid-twenties I felt profoundly out of place among hordes of worn-out boomers twisting wistfully like they did so many summers ago, but then again that's both the promise and the appeal of the Beach Boys - an endless summer. At $159 a ticket you'd want to hope so too.