Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys capsules: live albums

This includes all of the Beach Boys' officially released live records with the exception of In Concert, addressed separately.

The Beach Boys: Concert (Capitol 1963/1964)
The band sounds pretty good, basically, and although their act is amateurish, their youthful performances here -- recorded at a couple of shows in Sacramento, with overdubs -- are exhilarating and charming, thronged by masses of screaming teenagers. It may not be as exciting as The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, but it still kicks. However, the setlist is a major drawback, consisting of a ratio of six covers to seven originals, and one of the originals ("I Get Around") is just the regular song with audience screams added. It's fun to hear Dennis sing Dion's "The Wanderer" -- that outrageous audience reaction after he grumbles the opening line, wow -- and Brian's introduction of Mike for "Monster Mash" is cute, but what the hell is the point? Why did a band with six albums need to dabble in the material of others? Why only one song from their newest release at this point? Didn't the band know that "Long Tall Texan" makes Mike sound like a complete idiot? (Probably.) I have to say, however, that the version of the Four Freshmen's "Graduation Day" here is lovely, warm, and funny, and defines much of what I love about this group. Of course, they negate it quickly with a flat "Johnny B. Goode," but hey. I would like to quickly note that of the actual Beach Boys songs here, "In My Room" and an energetic "Hawaii" come off the best. For some reason, this album was a blockbuster.

The Beach Boys: Live in London (Capitol 1969/1970/1976) [r]
Since they couldn't seem to scrounge up a second followup to Endless Summer, Capitol's 1976 method of competition with one of the most eagerly awaited releases of the decade (15 Big Ones) was to issue a formerly import-only live album in the States... and this is a damn good cash-in. This late-'60s show was recorded on a European tour with a full brass section that beautifully fleshes out late-Capitol material like "Darlin'," "Wake the World," "God Only Knows," and a gorgeous "Aren't You Glad." The relative lack of Friends material is lamentable, but the Wild Honey stuff is so good it's forgivable. In fact, every track here is worthwhile and shows the band as tight as they ever were on stage. Mike Love's schmooze-act is annoying and hard to ignore (and on the CD, difficult to skip), and this doesn't quite stand up to In Concert, but its brevity and those irresistible horns, plus the setlist, make it even more enjoyable in certain ways.

The Beach Boys: Good Timin': Live at Knebworth 1980 (Eagle 1980/2003)
With a beautiful package that contains long-archived, long-promised unreleased material, this obviously couldn't be Capitol Records product. Instead it's from a UK-based label; nobody pretends this show from arguably the twilight of the Beach Boys' creative era is any kind of a revelation. It's just an interesting artifact for fans. The band (in one of their last full six-man lineup performances, although Brian seriously doesn't do much), indeed, sounds unusually enthusiastic for the post-Endless Summer oldies revue era. The harmonies are top-notch, and pretty much everything about the performance is above average except the setlist, which of course concentrates mostly on the tired classic material. There's a nice "Do It Again," a lovely singalong of "Good Vibrations" (probably the disc highlight), and a stellar medley of "Cotton Fields" and "Heroes and Villains," but the band's most divine moments come from the newest material. "Keepin' the Summer Alive," "Lady Lynda," "School Days," and "Rock & Roll Music" all sound vital and energized, blowing the corresponding studio versions out of the water entirely. It's remarkable to hear firsthand how beloved they were in the UK; even with the band playing material that was ancient by 1980, they connect fully with their fans in a sense that is missed sorely. Dennis Wilson particularly is possessive here of an adoration of the crowd that is endearing and heartwrenching. He even makes "You Are So Beautiful" sound not the least bit trite. And when his brother Carl sings "God Only Knows," time sort of melts away. Worth a perusal for fans.

The Beach Boys: Songs from Here and Back (Hallmark 1974-2005/2006)
For the dad rocker who has everything, Hallmark briefly offered the chance to get a cheap and breezy CD compilation of haphazardly chosen live Beach Boys cuts plus three "new songs" (that is, one new track each from the three split-off factions of the band as of 2006). The live stuff -- dating from either 1974 or (mostly) 1989 -- is not spectacular but it's tight and enjoyable, Carl's presence constantly in evidence and permitting a tragic contrast to the live Beach Boys band as it now exists. Since this was a bit of an obscure release -- you had to buy three greeting cards for the privilege to lay down $7.99 to own it, and it's never made it to streaming sites -- Brian, Mike and Al don't contribute particularly cutting-edge material for the new studio tracks. Brian's "Spirit of Rock & Roll" has been floating around since the Sweet Insanity era (1990) and is a lazily performed take on an utterly inconsequential number. Al's "PT Cruiser" is a simplistic pastiche of '60s car songs, those of Ronny & the Daytonas ("GTO") and the Rip Chords ("Hey Little Cobra") as much as the Beach Boys ("Shut Down"); Al's voice is as strong as ever. Ironically, Mike provides the most inspired and ambitious new song, something called "Cool Head, Warm Heart" that actually won't make you cringe. It's a good capper to a fairly decent fans-only release that's very easy to find cheaply in bargain bins.

The Beach Boys: Live - The 50th Anniversary Tour (Capitol 2012/2013) [c]
The so-called "reunion tour" of the Beach Boys with Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks puttered around the nation for much of 2012, playing generous setlists to large, appreciative crowds. Brian even played bass once in a while, apparently. Judging from this studio-sweetened document, it's all very stiff and vile, the same old tired nostalgia peddling of the Mike & Bruce show with the supposed magic of two to three extra discarded original members. The closest this gets to tolerable is when Dennis and Carl Wilson are beamed in through projection screen to sing their leads on "Forever" and "God Only Knows." (Carl, the glue holding the band together for much of its existence, isn't important enough to merit the beyond-the-grave singing of one of his own songs, obvs.) At least it's not as bad as that execrable studio album they issued. I'm sorry for being a grouch, but my heart dies a bit every time someone talks about hearing this or being at one of these shows and being so impressed or moved to be in the presence of "the original Beach Boys." Two of the three central creative figures of the band are gone; to pretend otherwise is an obscenity. Mike -- still schmoozing his way through the opening "wheeeeeen" of "Be True to Your School," still slobbering all over these old youthful lyrics as he trudges through his seventies, still helping distance us from the memory that this band actually mattered and could do beautiful things at one time -- dismantled the "reunion" group to continue his magical mystery tour with Bruce later in 2012. At least people already know that version of the band is a joke.

The Beach Boys: Live in Sacramento 1964 (Capitol 1964/2014)
A copyright extension set gathering most of the material from the two shows recorded for the Concert album above. That album had a lot of repairs done in post, so it's nice to have the chance to hear the band -- competent, if barely professional -- at their highest youthful energy level and no doctoring. Sadly, the setlist is still dreadful, with too much inexplicable filler for such short gigs and such a large body (already) of available material. This official release is also somewhat inferior to old bootlegs collecting the same material, though it does feature one of my favorite heretofore-unreleased items, a rehearsal of "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" that showcases how hard the group could rock when they wanted to, with a particularly searing lead vocal by Brian Wilson, whose "rock & roll" voice was so criminally underused by the band. This is a slightly better package than Concert overall, so it can be considered a succession unless the original (one of only two #1 albums the band had, don't forget) is too iconic to be laid to rest in your estimation.

The Beach Boys: Live in Chicago 1965 (Capitol 1965/2015) [c]
The Beach Boys were recorded on a special two-night stand in Chicago in the winter of 1965 with Brian Wilson temporarily back in tow, the goal being to release a second live album (probably intended to be used as the stopgap that Party! later became). The Beach Boys were now soaring to new heights and reaching their peak in the studio, but you wouldn't know it from this, a disaster despite the band's enthusiasm. On the first show the biggest problem is that they're poorly miked by some incompetent sound engineer -- he hid Dennis' vocal mike inside a shoebox, it seems -- but also there's the fact that they don't seem to know the words to their own songs and are terribly out of tune. Brian stumbles through "Don't Worry Baby" and "Please Let Me Wonder," one of the few new-ish songs attempted here, and while things do improve on the second night -- some listeners actually celebrate the slightly calmer revision of "Wonder" as one of the best versions of the song -- it's still not a level acceptable for general, recreational listening. The Beach Boys could be tight at times, but this was a couple of off-nights, and obviously they wouldn't come into their own as a live band for another three years or so. It's hard to determine if Brian's normal absence from live shows is one reason they sound so under-rehearsed here. Maybe it also explains why the setlist is so dreadful, and barely distinguishable from shows they were playing a year earlier. (To be fair, it's not like the Beatles were doing much better on either count during this same period.) For hardcores only; it's a pity Capitol didn't see fit to dip into the 1965 sessions vaults, Party! aside, as the Today! and Summer Days sessions would be a lot more interesting for fans who aren't bootleg-enabled.

The Beach Boys: Graduation Day 1966: Live at the University of Michigan (Capitol 1966/2016)
The most notable thing about this release is the degree to which Capitol Records essentially dumped it onto the marketplace with no advertisement or fanfare and not even any real announcement (at least, as far as I noticed). Despite my regular checks, I only learned of its existence when searching for something else on Spotify. There are no liner notes and no physical release. You can stream it or buy it on iTunes; but based on the fact that they bothered at all, it's an easy assumption that these Beach Boys archival thingos must be somewhat profitable, especially with such scant overhead as this one requires. The Michigan performances -- which are engaging and competent, nothing more really -- were collected before unofficially on a Sea of Tunes box that I never tracked down myself, the first one also on the infamous (for its title, not its content) bootleg Mike Love, Not War. In some ways Capitol's treatment is commendable -- this is a no-frills gathering of two complete Beach Boys shows, both (as far as I can hear) unedited. The band performs well but the setlists are as uninspiring as ever for the mid-'60s Beach Boys... except for the second and third ever live performances of "Good Vibrations," some lovely treatments of the two big Pet Sounds numbers (Carl sounds angelic as always), and Dennis' outstanding rendition of the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." It's never easy to know how to grade these pre-'69 Beach Boys shows, when they were still clinging to their past (understandably, judging from audience reactions) when they could've rearranged more of Pet Sounds or Summer Days, but if you love the band as much as you probably do if you've read this far, you'll enjoy this, and it's not like it requires much of an investment. Evidently we will need to keep a closer watch on Capitol in the future, and if they keep it up with unexpected live releases, I'm wondering if we'll see some really remarkable performances make their way out in the years to come.

The Beach Boys: 1967 - Live Sunshine (Capitol 1967/2017)
The lack of a recommendation here shouldn't be taken as a rebuke of this set's existence; it's just a lot of material (105 tracks) and doesn't particularly reward casual listening due to the repetition of songs across multiple dates. A clearinghouse for every recording (of acceptable quality) that exists of a Beach Boys concert from 1967, it opens with Even More Hawaii Material (castoff from the aborted live album that was to see release late in the title year), in this case the two complete concerts with Brian temporarily in tow, Bruce temporarily gone, but instead of bass Brian plays organ, rather badly. In fact the entire band sounds under-rehearsed and generally awful on the two Hawaii shows; despite the intrigue of hearing them play "Gettin' Hungry" on a stage in front of actual screaming teenagers, no one rises to the occasion in any sense, even though the actual plan was to play a show worthy of release. Dennis gives a particularly inexplicable performance, barely working any energy up beyond keeping a steady beat, and Brian's belching organ sounds like a deliberate act of sabotage. (This led, of course, to the often lovely low-key Wally Heider sessions mostly collected elsewhere.) It was never more obvious, incidentally, that the main reason "Heroes and Villains" didn't break records on the charts is how lackluster its grafted-on chorus is; the song's delightfully propulsive at first then stops dead, and at a noisy concert that's hard to ignore. Note also that the band's setlists still seem largely stuck in the past (no wonder they didn't feel prepared for Monterey), a problem that recurs to a lesser extent across this entire collection, and you have a recipe for disaster or at least embarrassment. The rehearsals for those shows, organized better here than in the past and on boots, are a bit more interesting; they do seem reasonably energized, including Brian, and discuss experimenting with oddball numbers like "The Lord's Prayer" but don't follow through -- it all suggests that the Hawaii problem was both just the jitters of the personnel shakeup combined with a failure of imagination in regard to what they could play onstage. The band's competence is vastly improved on the rest of the shows gathered here; setlist problems are still inescapable, with "Barbara Ann" and "Graduation Day" and even "Surfer Girl," great as it is, sounding like relics of a different band. In Detroit they go deep on songs from the then-forthcoming Wild Honey, with "Country Air" (!) and "How She Boogalooed It" appearing and coming off quite well, but two days later they've retired all but the title track and "Darlin'," which is a pity. Carl is the MVP on all these performances, killing it night after night on those numbers as well as "God Only Knows." There are still tough spots, but the band performances are mostly tight and enthusiastic; you hear a difference with Dennis immediately when they launch into "Barbara Ann" in Detroit on November 17th. The Washington show suffers from a seemingly lethargic crowd, not ideal for a band that feeds so much on the electricity in the room; but the show in White Plains, NY on the 21st of November overflows with infectious energy and an audience that's absolutely in love with the band -- that's the set to listen to if you want a taste of this. The biggest problem across the set is Mike's inability to shut up; some may appreciate his humor, but to me it comes off as a violation of a number of potentially emotional moments, plus he tends to repeat the same stock jokes from one town to the next, some of which (like "forgetting" the order in which songs are to be played) aren't even obnoxious so much as inexplicable. But as a harbinger of hopefully similar sets like this to come, specifically for the Ricky-Blondie period, I hope this makes heaps of cash.

The Beach Boys: On Tour: 1968 (Capitol 1968/2018)
This 114-track collection, another digital-only release, tells a few different stories. One is about the Beach Boys' growing accomplishment as a live band by the late '60s, and particularly Carl Wilson's remarkable aptitude at stage management and arranging. The group is joined at these shows by a brass band that follows them on the road through the midwest in July '68 and then, in a more robust configuration, to London five months later. The setlists are mostly the same from night to night and, as always, the band has good moments and bad ones, but by the London shows -- another example of which was officially released by Capitol way back in 1976, with incorrect date attached -- they sound as if they've grown fully into themselves on stage, eschewing most of the now-ancient early hits (only "Barbara Ann" and "California Girls" predate Pet Sounds) and fleshing out beautiful recordings like "Wake the World," "Aren't You Glad" and even "Bluebirds Over the Mountain," which is vastly better as a live cover. But then, of course, there is Mike Love, whose insistence on mugging with bad jokes that aren't funny the first time already derailed the otherwise fine Live in London release, and becomes worse on these accompanying shows when you learn how little he varied his routine from one night to the next. I'm the kind of fan who can live with eight shows boasting very similar setlists, but I'm not the one who's ever going to have the patience to sitthrough Love's bullshit again. It's not the compilers' fault, but boy is it a real shame. (Even more of a shame: just at the point when the Beach Boys are starting to become a fantastic live band, it appears that we won't get a live release next year because nothing properly taped from 1969 is in the vaults. Honestly, a huge disappointment to me.) One really stark contrast between the U.S. and UK shows here: the crowd response in London is positively enraptured, which is a lot of fun to hear.

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