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Review: Beach Boys drown in nostalgia during 50th anniversary show

Posted 9:36am on Friday, Apr. 27, 2012

It wasn't exactly a great day at the beach.

The Beach Boys, with all surviving, original members together on stage for the first time in two decades, including mystical figurehead Brian Wilson, took the stage at the Verizon Theatre Thursday night to mark the band's 50th anniversary. The myth has become legend: a small knot of family members in Hawthorne, Calif. and a friend from school get together, write some tunes about girls, surfing and cars, and in the process, become one of the most influential pop groups of all time.

The weight of that legacy was scarcely felt Thursday -- having a good time far outweighed any need to even briefly acknowledge the Beach Boys' place in pop history. While the band -- Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, Brian Wilson and David Marks (brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson have long since passed; solemn tribute was paid to both deceased members) -- didn't betray too many signs of age, it took an awfully long time for the evening to shake off the cobwebs and find its groove. (In fairness, this was only the second show of the tour, which opened in Tucson, Ariz. earlier this week.)

With a staggering 15 musicians arrayed on stage, it quickly became evident -- sadly -- that this was merely going to be the ho-hum, state fair version of the Beach Boys that has crisscrossed the country for the last two decades, with Brian Wilson tacked on. Right down to the gaudy video screen with its low-rent graphics and surfboards tucked into one corner of the stage, very little about the presentation suggested this was a monumental occasion.

Indeed, Wilson appeared to be anywhere but present during the show's first half -- the 130-minute long night was split in two by a 20-minute intermission -- playing his white grand piano, betraying no emotion on his face. Watching Mike Love ham it up as de facto bandleader (seriously, man, the cheese-ball pointing and hand flourishes are straight outta Branson), while the man often credited with making the Beach Boys as impactful as they were relegated to the role of sideman injected a fascinating tension into the proceedings.

Not that anyone in the nearly sold-out room was interested in the band's legendarily frictive dynamics. The theatre was packed with baby boomers, with a sprinkling of young families, intent on reliving the glory days, shouting along and standing up for the tracks they knew (Surfin' Safari, Do It Again and Don't Worry Baby got 'em going) and sitting back down for the more contemplative cuts. Love kept up his irritating schtick for the duration of the performance, even as Brian Wilson took on more of a central role in the second half of the show, performing knock-out renditions of Wouldn't It Be Nice, Sloop John B and Heroes and Villains.

The close, sun-dappled harmonies still seemed to be there (In My Room was immaculate), the gleaming arrangements were faithfully rendered and, although I have no empirical evidence to support this, I got the sneaking suspicion many of those extra bodies on stage were to help the Beach Boys achieve vocal heights that haven't been hit since the days of LBJ. The new single, That's Why God Made the Radio, ahead of the "reunion" album due out in June, fits snugly within the back catalog, but is otherwise unmemorable.

Was it fun? Sure, in a trip-down-memory-lane kind of way and, whatever the motivations, the songs hold up like the classics they are. But having grown up not with the Beach Boys as a band in heavy rotation (I came of age during the Kokomo era, after all), and instead, a group already revered for its contributions to the pop canon, seeing the men themselves appear so indifferent to the breadth of their accomplishments was a little jarring. I didn't need a buttoned-down "evening with" experience, but at the same time, this concert marking the 50th anniversary felt more cynical than celebratory. Talk about a wipe-out.

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