Words by: Merri Palmer
Photographer: Ismael Quintanilla III

 

I thought I knew what rock ‘n’ roll was until I saw The Beach Boys.

My generation grew up on Beach Boys’ surf rock, a sound so familiar and quintessential to American life that it may as well have been baseball, or apple pie, or stars and stripes. I have a sharp childhood memory of singing “Barbara Ann” at the top of my lungs in a restaurant bathroom. As those harmonies eked through the raspy speakers and into my soul, I knew this was music.

As I grew older, friends got into boy bands and pop, hip-hop and metal. I felt left behind. I understood how to do the Twist; I never understood how to do the Twerk. I stuck to oldies and musical theater until indie rock found me years later. I never felt cool.

I still don’t feel cool, but as an adult, I don’t care as much. I’m unabashedly beside myself with excitement when I learn that The Beach Boys are coming to Austin in early March. I geek out, binging on Beach Boy albums in order of popularity throughout January and February.

Soon, The Beach Boys and I are in the same city. I stand, heart pounding, outside the Long Center for the Performing Arts, one of Austin’s most beautiful venues. Usually housing Austin’s opera and symphony, the elegant structure stands as a gargantuan tribute to the creative arts. People mill about, enjoying the Long Center’s breathtaking panoramic view of downtown Austin. Their attire is a delightful mix of Hawaiian shirts, colorful leis, and formal wear. I chat with some strangers who tell me they came with a busload of “old hippies” from a nearby retirement community. I wonder how many of these people saw The Beach Boys in the 60s. I wonder which bands will still be performing in another 50 years.

I know this won’t be the sort of rock show I’m used to (dark bars, lots of hipsters with folded arms, most of the audience outside smoking). The crowd spans a vast spectrum of ages and the Long Center has assigned theater seating with alcohol only available in the lobby. I wonder if The Beach Boys will seem washed up or if this performance will feel like a tribute to a band that once was. I take a peek in the program to learn about this particular line up.

Brian Wilson is not on this tour (although he will be at Levitation this year, performing all of Pet Sounds). Original band co-founder Mike Love acts as frontman. Beach Boy-vet and Grammy Award winner Bruce Johnston (keys and vocals) leads the band with Love. Jeffrey Foskett (guitar/vocals), Brian Eichenburger (bass/vocals), Tim Bonhomme (keyboards/vocals), John Cowsill (percussion/vocals), and Scott Totten (guitar/vocals/musical director) comprise the rest of the band. Special guest and long-time friend John Stamos joins the band on percussion, guitar, and vocals.

Still unsure what to expect, I sit back and take in the theater: massive, with three levels of seating (not including private boxes). The show looks nearly sold out as ushers lead people to their seats.

Finally, the lights go down and a giant screen lights up. Photos and video from the 1960s appear: Kennedy, the first step on the moon, black and white surfers, crowds dancing, girls smiling, and so on flashes before us, drawing us into the context of America’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band. A recording of “Surfin’” plays as the band’s silhouettes swarm the stage. Lights suddenly burst on, revealing the ensemble as they continue the song in an impressive, explosive opening.

The Beach Boys sound amazing. Their vocals are seamless; time and exhaustion are clearly not getting the better of them. Their lush vocal harmonies are this show’s main focus, mixed to perfection and louder than the guitars, bass, keys, or dual drum kits.

This is a powerhouse performance, with no dead space in between songs. Mike Love is a charming, dapper flirt of a frontman, exuding energy and class as he points and sings to people in the crowd. His voice sounds like it has a time machine and went back to 1968. Bruce Johnston’s voice sounds equally youthful, and his keyboard skills are flawless. The band’s sound is easily the same quality as Beach Boy recordings, perhaps better.

A special introduction is made for John Stamos, who has performed with The Beach Boys off and on since 1985, when they met on the set of Full House. He plays drums, guitar, and hand percussion throughout the night, also joining on vocals. Stamos looks really good, bringing an ocean of sex appeal to the stage.

 

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Throughout the night, nearly every member fronts a song. The extreme precision of these vocalists blows me away; all of them are good enough to sing lead, and all of them are good enough to blend into a glistening sea of harmony. The good vibrations resound through my whole body, and I find myself bobbing and moving in my seat. I look around to see that I’m not alone; the entire audience can’t stay still. People stand in the aisles or at their seats, dancing with complete abandon. The women closest to the front are losing their minds, screaming and reaching toward the stage, fingers splayed, grasping at musical gold. I see security stationed front stage, and I wonder if they’ll be able to stave off the fans.

As the show progresses, our fervor grows. The audience is standing, dancing, doing the Twist and the Monkey and that swimming dance I don’t know the name of. So am I. For once, I’m not worried about being uncool. I realize that these old folks know how to really rock. I start to wonder if my generation is spoiled or desensitized to rock ’n’ roll, that maybe we don’t know the first thing about what ‘cool’ is. I wish all shows and all crowds were this alive. I get a glimpse into the rock scene of the 60s, and I love love love it. I spend most of the show with a gigantic grin splitting my face in two. This is the most entertaining show I have ever seen. The Beach Boys are forever magic.

 

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The Beach Boys are gracious and down to earth. They could (understandably) be obscenely arrogant, but instead they’re having a great time up there and they thank us for listening. They appreciate this show as much as we do.

The Beach Boys prove that rock ’n’ roll is ageless, blending past and present together with seamless relevance. I get goosebumps when I realize that we aren’t looking back on the golden years; we are part of rock history, right now at this very second. This is a continuation of an important story, and it’s not over yet.

In a world filled with discord, The Beach Boys’ unique, masterful harmony is especially powerful. Their performance is fresh, relevant, and the highest-quality Feel-Good show I’ve ever seen.

 

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HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE TWO-HOUR PERFORMANCE:

  • John Stamos’ sexy dance moves during “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”

  • “Help Me Rhonda” and “Barbara Ann” rile up the crowd so much that security has to stop women from storming the stage and ushers unsuccessfully try to keep aisles clear

  • Astounding a cappella breaks in “Sloop John B” and “California Girls”

  • Mike Love’s firsthand account of his visit to India with the Beatles, including fond remembrances of the late George Harrison and a performance of his tribute to George, “Pisces Brothers”

  • Special surprise guest Chris Cross

  • A capella quartet performance of “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” (the song The Beach Boys sang at the funeral of John Stamos’ mother)

  • Mike Love refers to tweeting

  • Bruce Johnston performs his Grammy Award-winning song “Disney Girls” and reveals a talent for whistling

  • Rare footage and recording of Carl Wilson singing “God Only Knows” backed by the band, live onstage

  • Mike Love explains how to access the flashlight function on a smartphone before “Surfer Girl”

  • “Forever” lead vocals by John Stamos

  • Rare footage of Dennis Wilson

  • Mike Love makes a Your Mom joke to John Stamos

  • Eight-part vocal finale during encore of “Kokomo” and “Fun Fun Fun”

 

STUFF THE BEACH BOYS AND HIP-HOP HAVE IN COMMON:

  • Songs about girls and cars

  • Shout outs to dead homies

  • A lot of diamonds and canes in the audience