Beach Boys at the Chicago Theatre | Review and photos
The Beach Boys is a band so steeped in tragedy and conflict that it’s sometimes hard to see past them to celebrate its occasional victories. Even then, for the past several years those victories have centered almost entirely on Brian Wilson’s comeback and the cult of his twin masterworks Pet Sounds and Smile, each of which inspired essential reissues and sparked widely praised tours. But with those wins came another ironic tragedy: So much focus was placed on Brian Wilson’s formative works, and so much ire directed at bristly longtime band steward Mike Love, that the notion of the Beach Boys as a band—of musicians, of brothers and cousins, of friends—went missing.
The unlikely 50th anniversary reunion of Wilson, Love, Al Jardine and other longtime Beach Boys Bruce Johnston and guitarist David Marks, then, attempts to return some semblance of balance to the band and its storied history. It’s a restoration, of sorts, a reminder of how inextricable this group and its music—from its innocent party songs to its dark, complex compositional triumphs—is to American popular culture.
From the first moments of “Do It Again” through the career spanning hit parade that followed, there was every reason to celebrate the Beach Boys at the Chicago Theatre Monday night, the first of two sold-out shows. It was great to welcome the return of Al Jardine, who left the Beach Boys after the death of Carl Wilson in 1998, and whose lead on the gender-retooled interpretation of “Then He Kissed Me” was the first song to bring the crowd to its feet. Additionally, it was great to see guitarist Marks, whose contributions to the band’s first four albums were essential to the development of its sound, and who got his own lead showcase with “Hawaii.” Alas, as with most 50th anniversaries, Monday night was as notable for who wasn’t there as for who was, but late brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson got their tasteful due, or at least as tastefully as any video tribute could provide, singing lead on “God Only Knows” and “Forever” from beyond the grave.
The rest, as they say, is history, from the group’s early songs of hot rods and surfing through selections from Pet Sounds and Smile and even to a couple of deep cuts, like a Brian-lead “Sail On, Sailor,” Love’s ode to transcendental meditation “All This is That” (from 1972’s Carl and the Passions—‘So Tough’ album) or the Bruce Johnston-lead “Disney Girls.” Brian Wilson sat mostly still behind a white grand piano but sounded OK this night, and he generally seemed more engaged, even happy, than not (as disconcerting as it was to watch him hustled off-stage between sets like a prop). Love, Johnston and Jardine, meanwhile, hammed moderately like the pros they are, but their voices sounded surprisingly strong. Or perhaps not surprisingly: With 15 people on stage, and most of them singing, everything better sound good, and indeed, supported by ringers ported over from Brian’s band, the recreation of this iconic music was note-perfect but thankfully never rote.
Did the band play “Kokomo?” Damn right, it was a huge hit—some of you reading this even bought it—and the Beach Boys aim to please. Did Mike Love constantly gesture to fans, with twinkly waves and diamond-ring adorned pointed fingers, like they were the most special people in the entire world? Of course, that’s what he does: He’s a performer. Did the presence of so many musicians, including no less than six guitars, come off as maybe a little CYA overkill? Yeah, but it sounded awesome, so so what? This was no state-fair sleepwalk. This was a bunch of guys celebrating 50 years together (more or less) playing songs that frankly everyone and their parents likely recognizes and maybe loves, a show designed to brush the dust off and bring back the lustre a bit, to radiate good vibrations and drum the cynicism right out of you. And against all odds, it worked.