Ever since I became obsessed with “Pet Sounds” — the sonically ambitious 1966 LP that solidified The Beach Boys’ transformation from feel-good, surf rock hit makers into emotionally-complex art pop sophisticates — I’ve always wanted to know what the album’s lush, harmony-heavy compositions would sound like live.
I never thought I would get my wish — years of legal spats and spun-out separations between Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine had me convinced the reunion ship had sailed. Then, in late December, the trio, along with longtime members Bruce Johnston and David Marks, announced they would reunite for a 50th anniversary celebration tour. It was music to my ears.
So, on Saturday, my friend Moira and I jumped into my cracked up Honda Accord and traveled 90 miles to Mohegan Sun Arena for the first of two sold out Beach Boys shows at the smoky, subterranean casino on the far side of Connecticut.
Flanked by a neon video screen with images of surfboards, fast cars and bikini-clad women, The Beach Boys dove right into their set, breezing through “Do It Again,” “Don’t Back Down” and “Surfing Safari.” I was immediately struck by how — well — ancient they all looked, especially next to the fresh-faced album covers of the early 60s that rolled across the video screen.
That became even more apparent as they played “Be True To Your School,” an ode to Wilson and Jardine’s alma mater. The irony wasn’t lost on Love.
“This song was made 49 years ago,” he told the giggling crowd. “Show a little mercy.”
Age, however, has done little to distort the Beach Boys’ harmonies; they sounded positively boyish. Even Wilson, who sat stone-faced behind a grand piano in ill-fitting track pants, hardly missed a beat. When the sexagenarians did trip up, a 10-piece backing band made up of musicians from the group’s various touring entities, along with guest singer/guitarist Jeff Foskett, were there as sonic stilts.
The audience, many of whom rivaled the Beach Boys in age, spilled Bud Lights and mini bottles of wine as they danced emphatically to one hit — “Little Deuce Coup,” “409,” “I Get Around” — after the other (“old ladies getting white girl wasted,” as Moira put it). Everyone was having fun fun fun, including myself. Well, sort of — I was still waiting to hear tunes from my favorite album.
Then, after an intermission (unorthodox, to be sure, but understandable, given that the band had played 20-plus songs, non-stop, in less than an hour), I got my wish. “Sloop John B,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” came in rapid succession. I sang along as other people snored. The only Beach Boys songs really anyone got excited about, it seemed, had been recorded before 1966. Oh wait, but there was “Kokomo.”
Not long after a tribute to Carl Wilson on “God Only Knows” (another superlative “Pet Sounds” number) that featured the pre-recorded voice of the late Wilson brother (but no holograms, thankfully), the group reverted back to its old hits. And, suddenly, the audience was back on their feet again, batting beach balls and dancing like they were plastered at their daughter’s wedding party.
Then, it dawned on me like a smoggy, L.A. sunset: this was a show for fans of the old stuff. And that was OK. I don’t begrudge anyone their love of early Beach Boys hits. But those songs are never what drew me to the band. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I felt alienated.
Don’t get me wrong — I still enjoyed the concert. It was no doubt special to see The Beach Boys on stage, proving that the spirit of youth can transcend time. And it’s not even that I dislike their early hits — “In My Room,” “Don’t Worry Baby” and “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” are a few of my favorite Beach Boys songs. I just wish more and different currents of the band’s career (how about “Friends,” “20/20″ or even a few more “Pet Sounds” tunes?) had flowed into their set. After all, there’s a lot more to The Beach Boys than surfing, fast cars and bikini-clad women.