Sunday, 13 April 2008

Mike Love's Beach Boys last night (Manchester Apollo)

I will eventually use this blog to talk about something *other* than the Beach Boys, I promise...
I'd originally not planned to go to see Mike Love's "Beach Boys" last night, even though when I saw them a few years ago they were absolutely excellent, just because I'm very short of money now and couldn't really justify it to myself, especially if they were going to do the same short hits setlist they did in 2001 and 2002, the first couple of times I saw them.

Two things changed that, and made me decide I was definitely going to go. Firstly, I read an interview with Bruce Johnston saying that the band were going to be doing 50+ song setlists in the UK again - Bruce appears to have a much higher opinion of UK than US audiences, and the band played a lot of obscurities last time they were over. The second thing that changed my mind was hearing that Dave Marks was back in the band. For those who don't know, Dave was the original rhythm guitarist for the Beach Boys on their first handful of albums, and I'd never seen him play before.

I think this was one of the best decisions of my life.

Before I get to the review proper, I have to give a bit of exposition, because not everyone is as familiar with the minutiae of the Beach Boys' career as I am. The touring Beach Boys are Mike Love (the nasal voiced one who sang the low lead on a lot of the band's bigger early hits) and Bruce Johnston (who joined the band in 1965. He never took many leads, but his is the distinctive answering voice singing "I wish they all could be California" and "God only knows what I'd be without you). For this UK tour they were joined by Dave Marks, making three Beach Boys on stage. The other five band members are sidemen, and that's all you *need* to know.

However, there were some other lineup changes since I'd last seen the band, and sometimes during the review I'll be comparing this to previous shows, so for those who are interested I'll explain. The rest of you can skip the next couple of paragraphs.

The first couple of times I saw this band, they featured two long-term sidemen, Adrian Baker (falsetto vocals) who'd been with the band off and on (more off than on) since the early 80s, and Mike Kowalski (drums) who'd been with them since the late 60s. Both were appalingly bad. Baker had pitching problems and the wrong timbre for Beach Boys music (having more of a Frankie Valli sound) while Kowalski was frankly the worst drummer I've ever seen in my life. In 2004, the last time I saw them, Baker had 'swapped out' with a singer/guitarist named Randell Kirsch, Kirsch joining the touring Beach Boys while Baker took his job in Papa Doo Run Run (a tribute band made up of musicians who've played with the Beach Boys, Jan & Dean and Brian Wilson). Kirsch improved the band immensely.

Since then there have been more changes. Kowalski was fired, and John Cowsill (of the Cowsills) who had been in the band on keyboards switched to drums, something I was entirely happy about. I was less happy, though, that Chris Farmer, the band's bass player, also left at that time. Farmer is an excellent vocalist, and I thought he would leave a big gap. In his place, Kirsch switched from guitar to bass and Mike Love's son Christian joined on guitar and vocals.

Before I get to the gig proper, something I think I should mention:

Before the gig, I sat outside the pub next door, sometimes chatting to old acquaintances from other gigs and fan events I've been to, but mostly listening to the soundcheck and reading and just enjoying myself. At one point Bruce Johnston came past briefly (with Tim Bonhomme, the band's keyboard player), and lost himself a couple of fans - two people asked him for autographs and he said "no" in such a staggeringly rude tone that they started chatting about what the penalty in law is for punching a Beach Boy. I was a little more forgiving though (though it wasn't me he'd snubbed) - I've seen Bruce go very far out of his way for fans before, and on the two occasions we've spoken he's been very nice to me (though he has a rather odd sense of humour), but when approached this time he was at work - this was the time between the sound check and the performance - and people can get snappy when they're bothered when trying to work.

So I continued to sit outside the pub, and for a while I was talking to a homeless bloke I know - he was there to try to get money off the crowd so he could get a room for the night, but there weren't many people there yet, so he just sat next to me on the bench and we chatted. Every so often he'd get up and go and try to beg off a few people then come back and sit with me some more.

But then he got up and went over to someone I recognised as John Cowsill, who had walked out of the venue, talking to someone on his mobile phone and looking rather concerned. After his phone conversation he sat down alone, looking deep in thought. When my homeless friend went over to speak to him he seemed confused for a second, saying (I heard this bit) "Change? What? ... Oh, you mean like money?" and giving him a handful of change.

But my homeless acquaintance kept talking to him, and after a few minutes, and remembering what I said above about not bothering people at work, I went up to him and said "Look mate, this bloke's in the band, he's at work right now and probably doesn't want to be disturbed."

Cowsill said "I'm in the band?!"
"Aren't you?"
"No..." (looking genuinely confused)
"Well, you look exactly like John Cowsill..."

He played around for a couple of seconds before admitting he was (he seemed at one and the same time to be enjoying joking with me and trying to work out how anyone would know who he was, as he's not the most famous person in the world). He then said "This guy's not bothering me, I live in California! I've been telling him to get as much as he can from the crowd tonight. Go out there and fill your fucking cup to overflowing twice over!"

He chatted with me for a short while, the usual stuff about if I'd seen the band before and so on, but then after I went back to the bench I was sitting on he talked with my homeless acquaintance for (I didn't have a watch so can't be precise) what seemed like *half an hour*. And when talking to me and to him, Cowsill seemed genuinely engaged and happy to be talking. You can't fake that kind of genuine niceness and interest in other people. I don't think anyone has impressed me quite as much in such a short space of time - he just seems like a genuinely lovely bloke.

Anyway, on to the show.

The band consisted of:
Mike Love (vocals)
Bruce Johnston (vocals, keyboards)
David Marks (lead guitar, vocals)

Backing musicians:
Scott Totten (lead guitar, vocals)
Christian Love (rhythm guitar, vocals)
Tim Bonhomme (keyboards)
Randell Kirsch (bass, vocals)
John Cowsill (drums, vocals)

A few notes on the show as a whole before I talk about the setlist:
People in the UK don't wear Hawaiian shirts generally, and the band's clothes had been mocked by the Times reviewer in the 2004 tour. For this show, all the frontline were wearing either tailored black suits or (in the case of Bruce) a dark shirt and jeans - the only Hawaiian shirt in evidence was on Bonhomme. And it must be said they looked *COOL* like this, rather than the dorkiness they projected in 2004. Christian Love actually reminded me a lot of Nick Walusko (of Brian Wilson's band and the Wondermints) in his stage presence.

One thing that does appear to be an issue, though, is that all the frontline (with the exception of Scott Totten) wear baseball caps, putting their faces in shadow when lit from above. When you combine this with the fact that John Cowsill took a number of leads from behind the drums with his hair hanging over his face, some people have not been able to tell who was taking which lead, and I've heard some people even suggest that some of the leads were pre-recorded. This is nonsense - if any pre-recorded material is used at all, which I doubt but I suppose is possible, it's minimal and probably consists of some extra thickening of the harmonies. But they might want to think about changing the lighting slightly.

The lineup changes have been almost entirely beneficial to the band, instrumentally. Cowsill is the best drummer I've ever seen, bar none. I already knew he was decent, and he's been a real asset to the band at every gig I've seen, but switching him to drums has given the band a power and confidence they've not had since the early 70s. He's got a lot of Dennis' stage presence and energy, but he can play as accurately as a Hal Blaine when the song needs it. And moving Kirsch to bass has only been a good move as well. Moving Cowsill from keyboards has also meant that Bruce is actually *playing* the keyboard in front of him now. This band are *TIGHT*.

Instrumentally, I would actually go so far as to say that this band are as good as their counterparts in Brian Wilson's band. The main way in which this band fall down in comparison to Brian's is just their reliance on synthesisers to cover instrumental parts that in Brian's band are covered by multi-instrumentalists. But the core guitar-bass-drums rhythm section are comparable.

Adding Dave Marks for the UK tour is a great move, too. Not only is it nice to see him back with the band, but he really does add to the band instrumentally. He and Scott Totten swapped lead parts all night, Totten taking the thicker, bluesier post-1967 lead parts (usually on a Gibson) while Marks played the earlier, Chuck Berry infused stuff on what sounded like a Fender. But Marks actually played that stuff as *surf guitar*, something the Beach Boys have never really had - he was playing mostly the same notes as on the records, but with an attack and tone that bring the band closer to Dick Dale or at least the Ventures. He and Totten meshed very well, and watching them trade solos made Barbara Ann almost worth listening to.

Vocally, the changes have been more of a mixed bag. Christian Love, while sounding sometimes scarily like Carl Wilson, is a weaker singer than Chris Farmer, meaning the harmonies were thinner in the middle than they used to be (all the parts were still there, but it's just a matter of the relative strength of each voice). But on the other hand, the redistribution of vocal parts has meant that Cowsill got more leads ( a very good thing), and has allowed Scott Totten to shine.

Totten has been in the band since 2001, but never made a huge impression on me at the previous shows, just playing his guitar well and doing competent backing vocals. But now it's apparent that he's an excellent falsetto singer, sounding more like a young Brian Wilson than any of the many falsetto singers the Beach Boys have employed over the years.

The annoying thing for a purist like myself is that this band actually sound far more like the Beach Boys' records than the real Beach Boys did in the last couple of decades of their career. The Beach Boys were a very sloppy live band from the early 80s onwards, replacing complex vocal parts with simpler ones, cutting out difficult bits of the arrangements, strumming full chords rather than playing the single-line parts on the records, and generally simplifying things to make their job as easy as possible. The competition from Brian Wilson's band (and, I suspect, the desire to appear 'authentic' rather than a tribute band) has made them pay serious attention, and now they're playing the parts as written, no matter how difficult (except that Cowsill's drumming on some of the surf songs is more complex than the parts on the record).

I've possibly got the order of the songs here slightly wrong, but this is, as best I can recall, how the set went. If I don't specify a lead vocalist, you can assume that the lead was Mike Love and the falsetto Randell Kirsch.

The band walked on to Wipeout, and then went into an uninterrupted stream of songs. I've heard these called medleys, and technically they are, but that calls to mind Stars On Forty-Five or something - these were the full songs, just played without any break. I remember the first of these as being about 11 songs, but I can only actually remember eight of them. They started with Do It Again, with Mike Love in excellent voice (the last few times I've seen them, he's sounded quite flat on his tenor leads, although he's always done an excellent job on the bass parts, but here he sounded on-key pretty much throughout). The song was slightly marred by what I think was some bleed-through from a click track in the first half, but it still sounded pretty good). The medley then continued with
Don't Back Down - Cowsill's playing on this was *astounding*, sounding almost like Alban 'Snoopy' Pfisterer's playing on 7 & 7 Is by Love. Cowsill plays like a man with at least seven limbs, putting in little tom rolls all over the place and still keeping the beat rock-solid. They just *nailed* this song, always one of my favourites of the early surf songs.
Catch A Wave
Little Honda - Another one that just went over superbly
Surf City - During this Bruce tried to get the audience to sing along, with little success. This was never a hit over here, and the casual fans just won't know it.
Surfin' Safari
Surfin' USA

After this the band went into Surfer Girl, with Bruce (I think) singing the solo bridge. Mike Love generally kept the crass comments to a minimum in this show - he actually at times talked about the *songwriting*, and for once I couldn't actually recite his patter along with him - but one of the few irritating moments was in the introduction to this, when he said "this one is dedicated to the lovely ladies, because we're the Beach Boys, not the Village People".

Good Timin' had lead vocals from Christian Love. He sounded competent enough, but a little husky, and he has a tendency to swoop up to notes that is probably impossible to avoid in this melismatic American Idol generation but which still irritates me. He got better as the show went on - he was actually excellent in the second half - but he was the weak link early on. Having said that, just having him on stage seemed to change the dynamic for the better - Mike obviously seemed to glow with pride, but so did Bruce, who must have known him all his life, after all. I've never been a particular fan of this song, either, though I know I'm in the minority there. But it's still nice to hear the band doing obscurities like this.

When I Grow Up (To Be A Man) went over very well, although Tim Bonhomme's keyboard was too low in the mix.

Good To My Baby has always been a favourite of mine, and the band did it very well.

You're So Good To Me was the first weak song of the night. I've always liked this one, but Christian Love's voice isn't particularly good for it (he's much better suited for ballads - he doesn't have the power for this kind of song). However, the real problem was that they took it too slow - it should be a real uptempo stomper, somewhere between the Four Seasons and Holland-Dozier-Holland. Played even slightly too slowly it just drags.

Forever was sung by David Marks, and he did an incredibly good job. I'd not heard Marks sing a lead before (other than Summertime Blues when he was 14 or so) and had heard that he wasn't allowed to sing on the records because he wasn't any good. If that was the case then, it isn't now - he has a strong, pleasant mid-range tenor, and sold the song very well (and it's a surprisingly difficult song to sing, even though not especially rangey). This was lovely, and I'm glad to see it was David who sang it - like God Only Knows, this should *only* be sung by a 'real' Beach Boy.

Why Do Fools Fall In Love was extremely impressive, and the first time I really took notice of Scott Totten. On the record, Brian Wilson's falsetto lead is double-tracked. Here, Randell Kirsch and Scott Totten took it in unison, and did an incredible job. But what impressed me most was that normally if you're trying to double someone live you'd look at each other in order to keep together. Kirsch and Totten were stood at opposite ends of the stage, facing forward, and managed to double each other perfectly.

Darlin' was John Cowsill's first lead of the day. I know I've gone on a lot about Cowsill here, but he deserves it. He's far and away the best singer in the band, strong and soulful, and the fact that he manages to sing so well while playing the drums as hard as he does amazes me - were I to attempt *either* to play the drums as powerfully as he does, or to sing as strongly, I'd be out of breath after one song.

Warmth Of the Sun was introduced slightly incoherently, but rather touchingly, by Mike. He seems a little lost without his standard patter to fall back on, but he spoke about the process of writing the song. He tried to turn it into a joke at the end, but I actually really liked hearing him talking about the song in an obviously unrehearsed way. I think Randell sang lead on this one.

Wendy was pretty good. I'm pretty sure Bruce sang the solo leads on this one.

Kiss Me Baby was just gorgeous. I always prefer Mike's voice on the slow ballads where he can go lower, and this is one of my two or three favourite Beach Boys songs anyway. Bruce doubled Mike on the 'kiss a little bit, fight a little bit' bass parts in the chorus.

Let Him Run Wild was sung superbly by Scott Totten. As well as being a great song, this one is incredibly difficult to sing, but Scott really impressed me on the choruses. Those shrieked 'let him run!'s are practically impossible - to get them right requires a very difficult balance of precision (to hit the incredibly high notes accurately) and passion (to get the right emotion). I was shocked at how well he did this.

Then I Kissed Her had Christian Love on lead.

I Can Hear Music was another Cowsill lead. Again, he did a great job on this.
The Ballad of Ol' Betsy had Totten on lead. He did a very good job of singing Brian's part, but I actually wish Mike had sung lead on this one. He did a version of this song on an obscure CD given away at petrol stations in the US about ten years ago, and sang it beautifully, and I think it's more suited for Mike's range than for the falsetto range it was done in originally.
Still Cruisin' was a pleasant surprise. I've always had a soft spot for this one, bad as I know it is. I think Christian took Carl's parts, and did a creditable job - his voice was obviously starting to warm up at this point.
Don't Worry Baby had Randell on lead, and was gorgeous.

To end the first half they did a run of car songs - Little Deuce Coupe, 409, Shut Down, I Get Around, which had many of the audience up and dancing. Unfortunately this was when an event that could have really spoiled the gig happened. A few rows in front of me and to the left a man stood up to dance, and the bloke behind him tapped him on the back and (presumably) asked him to sit down. The dancing man refused, so the bloke behind him grabbed hold of him by the shoulders and pulled him backwards over the back of his chair. Thankfully, after a bit of facing off, the dancing man decided it wasn't worth it, because it could otherwise easily have led to a fistfight. I just hope his evening wasn't *too* badly ruined.

During I Get Around Bruce got in front of his keyboard and executed some weird acrobatic leap that looked like it would be difficult for a man half his age.

Now, that first set alone would have been more than satisfying for me, but this was just the intermission. During the break I looked over at the woman sitting next to me, who must have been maybe 25 or so. She was texting "Guess where I am! At the BEACH BOYS! The real 1s not the fake 1s!There so cool!"

The second set opened with Sloop John B, with I think Bruce on lead, though this is one of those songs where often the lead gets doubled (and Mike obviously took his parts).

California Dreamin' came next, sung by Cowsill and Christian Love. Christian's vocals had got much stronger by this point, but Cowsill still had the edge on him. Bruce kept pointing the mic to the crowd to sing the backing vocals.

God Only Knows had Bruce take the lead, although this one got a huge 'ahh' from the crowd at the beginning, and pretty much everyone sang along. This was really lovely, especially since the band can now do the difficult stacatto instrumental break *accurately*. The only problem I had, and it's a minor one, was with Bruce's insistence on singing the second line as "But as long as there are stars above you" rather than "But long as...". The 'as long' is more grammatically correct, but messes up the melody. But that's just me being picky.

Sail On Sailor was *astonishing*. This had always been the song I'd point to anyway as the one where Mike's Beach Boys do better than Brian Wilson's band, because Chris Farmer would put more passion into the vocals. But John Cowsill's rendition of this was literally the best I've ever heard, and I've heard a lot of versions of this song.

You Still Believe In Me was sung beautifully by Randell Kirsch, and was done accurately down to the bicycle horn at the end.

(I'm sure there was another song between these two, but can't remember which one it was - presumably one I've placed elsewhere in the set)

Here Today was astonishing, just listening to the rhythm section. Randell Kirsch playing those incredibly fast bass notes along with John Cowsill's broken drum pattern was quite incredible. Mike took lead on this, except for the "a brand new love affair is such a beautiful thing/But if you're not careful think about the pain it can bring" sections, which Bruce took.

At this point, half the band left the stage and Mike announced they were going to do a few songs 'semi-unplugged'. To start with, he talked about Brian's obsession with the Four Freshmen, and how he'd taught the band to sing the harmony parts (he actually mentioned Al Jardine's name here, which is not something I've seen before - a sign of a possible slight reconciliation?) and then Mike, Bruce, Scott and Randell sang Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring. Now, I've never liked this song, but it's a very, very difficult song to sing, especially a capella, with no kind of safety net, and everyone got their parts exactly.

In My Room followed, with just a few acoustic guitars for backing, and was excellent. The sound quality on this section was extraordinary - I could hear finger noise from the guitars. During this unplugged section, where everything was more exposed and the band were less familliar with the material, I heard a few fluffs (which I'll mention when they come up) - but that shouldn't be taken as criticism of the band in any way. It does, however, prove if proof were needed that these were actual live performances.

After that, Mike announced that the band were going to do a few songs inspired by his experiences with Transcendental Meditation and the Maharishi. After fairly standard anecdotes about being in Rishikesh with the Beatles and Donovan, he introduced Cool Head, Warm Heart by talking about how it had been on the Hallmark compilation a couple of years ago "along with a new song by Brian and one by Al. But since those guys aren't here, we're going to do the one I wrote". This sounded pretty much like the record, with Christian Love in particularly good voice.

Everyone's In Love With You followed, including the extra sections they played when doing it four years ago.

All This Is That came next, with Scott Totten taking the high Carl parts (the 'Jai Guru Dev's) while Christian took the lower Carl parts ("two ways have I") and Mike singing his own lead parts. All did a beautiful job - I've criticised Christian's vocals in the earlier parts of the set, but by this point he sounded spookily like Carl Wilson.

After this came 'Til I Die, introduced by Mike saying how Brian had written it on his own and how it was a very profound song. This was done with an instrumental intro, similar (though shorter) to the one on the Endless Harmony soundtrack, and was beautiful. At one point in the second verse someone in the middle of the harmonies (I wasn't close enough to see who) started singing lines from the third verse before correcting himself, but that's a minor flaw.

Disney Girls came next, again with a couple of minor flaws (Bruce fluffed a couple of lines in the second verse, and Scott Totten came in a couple of beats too early on the first "Love"), but again sounding lovely. Mike Love actually sat this one out - the only song where he didn't sing at all.

Kokomo was next, with the rest of the band having returned at this point. This song was never a hit in the UK, and despite Bruce's continued attempts to get the audience to sing along, it doesn't have the recognition it does in the US. When they used to play it towards the end, in the middle of a run of hits, it would completely deaden the atmosphere, but coming here between the more obscure songs and the big hits it isn't out of place. However, they took this one *far* too slowly, and it turned into a dirge. Christian Love did an excellent job on the choruses, but it wasn't enough to save a plodding performance.

Cottonfields, on the other hand, was just an exhilirating *rush*. This one was a huge hit here in the UK, and the band did a superb job on it, with Cowsill's lead vocals being a big part of that, but the whole band was tight, playing the little country guitar licks and getting the complicated harmonies perfectly.

California Girls was about as you'd expect. Not a favourite of mine, but they did it very well - Scott Totten did a very good job on the intro.

Help Me Rhonda was sung by Cowsill, and by this point pretty much the whole crowd were on their feet.

Dance Dance Dance and Do You Wanna Dance followed, the latter sung by Dave Marks, who again did a very good job on a Dennis lead.

Wouldn't It Be Nice was as glorious as it always is (can't remember who sang lead here - I *think* Bruce and Randell in unison), and Barbara Ann was... well, it was Barbara Ann. Dave and Scott did a really good job on the guitar though.

In the encore, I was astonished by Good Vibrations. While I've said that Christian Love is the weakest link in the current band, he sounded absolutely identical to Carl Wilson here. But what's really interesting is how different this song can sound in different versions. The Beach Boys used to bring out the gentle, uplifting side of this song, and Brian Wilson's band do the same. Here, while still playing the song as close to the record as possible, it becomes a dark, throbbing, psychedelic beast, all sinister undercurrents and spooky theremin.

Fun Fun Fun finished the show, as always, and was good, as always, but was a slight letdown after that version of Good Vibrations.

It's a shame that outside the UK the band won't do these long shows, and you won't be able to see Dave Marks. I'd still recommend anyone who likes their music at all go and see the band - you'll definitely have a great time. But the show I saw was one of the greatest gigs I've ever seen...