THE BEACH BOYS (Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, John Cowsill, et al)
Supported by: Christopher Cross & band
Vector Arena, Auckland, New Zealand; 7.30 to 10.50pm
18th November 2007; $NZ129
Promotion was good for this show. There had been an interview done with Mike Love on the Australian leg of the tour, shown on New Zealand current affairs tv two nights before the Auckland concert. And news footage of the Beach Boys entourage of Thirties-Forties American classics, speeding up the highway the morning after their New Plymouth show, heading for Auckland 400 kilometres away. But the fact that ticket sales were slow was shown by the fact that after four months, the very day before the show, there were still tv ads trying to move them. In the event, a crowd of 5,000 (my estimate) filled the 12,000-capacity Auckland venue with joyous noise and singing.
The tv ads for the concert had only mentioned Christopher Cross in support, so it was with mixed feelings—torn between irritation and resignation—that we entered the arena three minutes after start time to be greeted by a nondescript ‘girl band’ intent on singing Queen and ELO songs. (All these people must have come simply for nostalgia, so anything pre-Rap will do, right?) I had been expecting to grit my teeth through Chris, the one-time crown prince of castrato Easy Listening, but this was too much. Ambiguously called the Ladykillers, I recognised two of the four as popular Kiwi stars of yesteryear, one of them (Suzanne Donaldson that was) going back the entire forty years and more to the mid-Sixties heyday of the Beach Boys, the other (Tina Cross) merely to the beginning of Disco. They might have been reasonably entertaining in their field of Cabaret Soul on another occasion, accompanied as they were solely by a pianist, but I just wasn’t in the mood. Why not give an opportunity to local up-and-coming rockers—someone at least vaguely in the spirit of things?
I had bought two tickets in July when the box-office opened, half intending to take my usual girlfriend. Only, whenever I had played her the Beach Boys on record or DVD before she had made unfortunate remarks like, “They should do songs that are easy to sing, like Abba or the Beatles.” By a few days before the concert I’d suffered months of daytime nightmares involving her sitting through the concert, seemingly enjoying herself, as she always did, then remarking, ‘Ah, that was quite nice… But if only it had been Abba, or the Bee Gees!” I’d asked my mother first if she wanted to see the Beach Boys—she’d expressed a liking for their music for years, in fact forty years. But, inundated with it whether she wanted it or not, as she’d been since the Sixties, I wasn’t sure that she wasn’t just being sociable in hesitantly assenting. At these prices I wanted someone who would actually appreciate the experience for what it was—the last ever visit to these shores by representatives of the greatest sound ever. I was determined not to take my best (male) friend, as I had to Brian & the Wondermints in December 2004. So “Maw” it was.
The brilliant planning of logistics that went into this special evening—I only fork out for shows when at least one Beach Boy is involved—was something to behold. My mother is elderly, heading well towards frail, is diabetic, and needs a walker to travel more than fifty metres at a time. She needs careful timing of meals and snacks, and she’d decided to leave her walker at home.
I’m glad the current Beach Boys turned out to be worth every penny and every bit of inconvenience. For quality and enjoyment I would rate them well ahead of the February 1978 lineup—made up of the five originals —and behind only the April 1970 lineup (Bruce substituting for Brian) with its immaculate reproduction of recordings. And this show outdid the classic 1970 show for enjoyment because of its overwhelming crowd reaction compared to the staid, inhibited audience of that time, offering polite applause.
As it happened, the surprise guests mainly acted to slow the show down, heralding the beginning of long setting-up delays and disruptive but fortunately intermittent lighting problems. It was a happy surprise that Christopher Cross was more of a rocker than I expected (I only knew ‘Theme from Arthur’ and ‘Sailing’). Though I’m certainly no expert, Christopher seems a fluent, skilled lead guitarist and his accompaniment—good vocals also—especially from a sexy blonde California Girl keyboard player and veteran bassist, improved things beyond anything I’d anticipated. His voice is somewhat stronger and more versatile than it sounds on record, and its Carl-Wilson-before-his-balls-dropped quality would come in very handy on a sincerely felt ‘I Can Hear Music’ guest spot within the Beach Boys’ segment; and later faithfully rendered ‘Carl’ vocals on ‘Kokomo’. The final song in his set, ‘Hey Laura’, was a lovely solo tribute to Dennis & Carl.
The Beach Boys Band, a more accurate description surely than what is implied by coopting the Beach Boys’ name with all there is to live up to, came on around 8.50pm after a 15-minute interval, to the tune of ‘Wipe Out’. This, in a single moment, set the tone—with a contagious bonhomie flowing out to the audience and back again in waves. Make no mistake, this was “The Mike Show” delivering a hits package—but all in great style and spirit. It was actually like being back in the Sixties, a claim I can’t make for any other show I’ve seen, by anyone. The Big Kahuna surfboards brought on to stand either side of the stage set helped, and two or three sweet little girls later invited on stage to singalong with ‘Barbara Ann’, ‘Fun Fun Fun’…
What Mike Love has lost in mobility at 66, possibly due to reported back problems, he has certainly made up for in working the crowd far better than I’d seen from him during the previous Beach Boys shows in Auckland. He has blossomed, admittedly belatedly, out from under the gaze of Brian and the others, regardless of the rights and wrongs of all feuds among the original members—which will never be resolved objectively or justly no matter how long the arguments continue to fly back and forth.
Bruce Johnston, 63, on keyboards—backed up by a specialist producing all sorts of sounds from a multi-deck instrument—was no slouch, the cheerleader for Mike and others at the slightest sign of the pace of the show flagging. The only time it happened was during the aforementioned lighting problems. Bruce sang ‘Do You Wanna Dance? well, with surprising energy—and performed ‘God Only Knows’ even better.
Certainly the most energetic of all was John Cowsill, who must be well into his fifties. Taking the trouble to reproduce percussive subtleties in a way Dennis rarely did live, at times he looked a lot like Dennis, flailing as he did in his youth, long hair flopping on his face. Apparently this was a warm-up tour for him, before he returns to his own family band, the Sixties’ Cowsills—styled halfway between the Beach Boys and the Mamas & the Papas. This Cowsill sang ‘Darlin’, ‘Help Me Rhonda’ and ‘California Dreamin’ (more like the Mamas & the Papas original than the Al remake) passably well.
Of the three unknown players thus far unmentioned, two were young guitarists and the other a bass player/falsetto. The falsetto sang a serviceable solo on ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and so on but of course without anything like the dexterity and feeling of Bri. He was better singing backup on the likes of ‘Surf City’, where a somewhat limited, shrill high voice would serve. Between the three of them they sang about ten of the leads—I can only assume engineered by Mike and Bruce to save energy.
Given that, the only jarring interpretation came from the young rhythm guitarist, who on ‘Then I Kissed Her’ gave nothing like the quality of Al Jardine (and isn’t the primary role of stand-ins to reproduce the sound of the originals?), but more like an American Idol contestant trying to do Phil Collins. An interesting variation on this song, though, was contained in the middle break—there isn’t one in the Beach Boys’ recorded version of 1965—reverting to the Crystals’ more elaborate 1963 original.
If I was tempted to carp a little more I would mention the Latin rhythm rather annoyingly employed on ‘When I Grow Up’— seriously missing Denny’s innovative stick work heard as a highlight on the original track. Conspicuously missing: ‘Heroes & Villains’, and all others from the Smile era—obviously not a Mike scene. And the way Mike has brought ‘Kokomo’ into focus for the encore instead of ‘Good Vibrations’ is a little obvious. Mike himself, as always, was best in his his deeper registers, on ‘Catch a Wave’, ‘Hawaii’, ‘Still Cruisin’, ‘Kokomo’…
Early on, the two ‘Dance’ numbers were performed best, and seven songs in, on ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love?’—a revelation, counterpoint harmonies that wouldn’t be matched the rest of the evening. ‘Warmth of the Sun’, ‘Good Timin’ and ‘In My Room’, in that order, also boasted excellent harmonies. Somewhat surprisingly —and all the more so because following a lacklustre ‘Sloop John B’— ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’, which was written off as “obscure” in 1970 by an Auckland reviewer, raised the humungous audience response of the night: a standing ovation and singalong from start to finish. Not to disparage the motive for such an overwhelming ovation, it is probably due to (a vastly inferior version) being the theme for Cadbury chocolate ads, played on television here for years.
Yet, ‘God Only Knows’, the theme to tv’s Big Love, got nothing like the same reaction, though equally beautifully done all round. ‘Little Honda’ was all excitement, attracting second biggest response and almost bringing the house down, then ‘Surf City’ and ‘Surfin’ USA’, with ‘Little Deuce Coupe’, ‘Help Me Rhonda’, and ‘Fun Fun Fun’ other big participation numbers. Strobe lighting effects pulled out for ‘Good Vibrations’ were highly effective; ‘Surfer Girl’ had been introduced as the “cellphone participation song”, prompting innumerable flashes toward the stage from all points for the duration. By the time of ‘Barbara Ann’—with the Christopher Cross band joining the Beach Boys on stage in a party atmosphere—all the stops were well and truly pulled out and what had been a fast-paced show accelerated still as ‘Surfin’ Safari’ segued frantically into a rocking-out ‘USA’.
Oh, and Maw really grooved, as well as she was able—as I was taking notes in the dark. I’m glad I gave her one of the highlights of her life as it winds down. She still tells people about it more than two months later. Count them: three dozen hits in two hours flat. I call that value for money.
1. California Girls 20. Don’t Worry Baby
2. Dance Dance Dance 21. Still Cruisin’
3. Do You Wanna Dance? 22. Little Deuce Coupe
4. Then I Kissed Her 23. 409
5. Darlin’ 24. I Get Around
6. When I Grow Up 25. In My Room
7. Why Do Fools Fall in Love? 26. Good Timin’
8. Sloop John B 27. California Dreamin’
9. Wouldn’t It Be Nice? 28. God Only Knows
10. I Can Hear Music 29. Good Vibrations
11. Surfer Girl 30. Help Me Rhonda
12. Do It Again 31. Rock and Roll Music
13. Surf City 32. Barbara Ann
14. Catch a Wave 33. Surfin’ Safari
15. Hawaii 34. Surfin’ USA
16. Little Honda
17. Be True to Your School Encore:
18. Warmth of the Sun 35. Kokomo
19. Getcha Back 36. Fun Fun Fun
G. A. (Gary) De Forest
‘Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music’
Booklocker.com, November 2007
To be published in the “Beach Boys Britain” newsletter