Red stage lights cloaked the band at the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center (PAC), illuminating the stage like a hidden beach under the setting sun. Usually, this would make great symbolism for a band with two original members over 70 years old. Something about The Beach Boys being on their way out; something about being on their last legs with younger supporting band mates carrying Mike Love and Bruce Johnston through the performance.
Unfortunately for that convenient imagery, and fortunately for everyone who paid money to attend, the concert lasted more than three hours.
The Beach Boys I saw last night wasn’t the same band that put out Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile or Surf’s Up. Only Love and Johnston remain of the original incarnation. There was no breakdancing, fireworks or T-shirt guns. Clad in dad jeans, the band stayed mostly stationary as it worked its way through the astounding number of hits the band has put out in its 55-year history. There weren’t any surprises or sudden turns.
The crowd’s composition matched. Rather than sandy teenagers or bikini clad girls, the concert hall filled with salt and pepper hair, respectable husband/wife types and beer bellies hidden under Hawaiian shirts.
This all sounds like criticism, but it isn’t. What’s wrong with any of that? The Beach Boys brought the audience with them through a nostalgia tour of their greatest hits, landing us on a SoCal beach bonfire in the mid-60s.
The band plays some 150 shows per year; my grandparents read, sleep and watch “Seinfeld.”
Considering the time Love and Johnston have spent under the limelight (more than half of a century), they were both impressively animated and self-aware. Love jabbed that the band was playing for the Mensa Society, then Johnston countered in the next song with bellows that sounded like they belonged to a 16-year-old a cappella pro — astoundingly intact. The humility with which the two carried the show, especially Love, presented the audience with a sense that the pair hadn’t grown senile, but rather wise — past the immaturity of narcissism that fame can bring.
The music followed a similar trend. There was no moment that I felt like my brain was melting or that I was put on the path to some religious awakening. That isn’t The Beach Boys, and it’s never been The Beach Boys. The reason their live performance has aged so well is that they’ve always been poppy and listenable. The high water mark of obscurity for the band’s discography was never beyond the scope of something they wouldn’t be able to handle or present effectively after aging. “God Only Knows” is equally fitting for The Beach Boys, aged 25 or 75.
I’d like to see Kanye touring when he’s that age, but I don’t envision his sounds translating as well.
Despite a general sense of comfort with being old guys who still love rock and roll and haven’t lost fun in the darkness of seniorism, some wrinkles oozed to the surface. Love may have Periscoped some of the concert from his iPhone as if to say, “Hey I also use emoji,” but moments of the projected images behind the band — the main visual focal point — were pretty dismal. As the band played “Help Me Rhonda,” a slideshow of different font variations of “I Heart Rock n’ Roll” cross faded on the screen. First a speech bubble of the text, then ill-fitting neon, then even less fitting as a tattoo design. Someone seemed to have just used Google images to find rock and roll-themed clip art, then tossed it into iMovie. The authentic nostalgia was undone, punctuated by shots nearly identical to what plays at the PacSun, where you hunted for board shorts.
The moments of faded veil were revived in the last, most emotional songs. Before playing “The Warmth of the Sun,” Love gave a short explanation about the song being written in the hours before the Kennedy assassination. For “God Only Knows,” an audio recording of the late Carl Wilson sang in tribute.
In the end, the audience left fulfilled, home and tucked in before midnight.