Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys: In Concert (1972-73)

(Reprise 1974)


The Beach Boys are much more universally remembered for their vocal harmonizing and for Brian Wilson's writing, arrangements and production than for their pure musicianship. This is largely for good reason; in the first half of the '60s they were deservedly known as primarily a studio phenomenon, though there exists audio and filmed evidence that they were often a tight, skilled band on stage, they were just as often done in by both massive screaming audiences and the limiting conventions of stage shows at the time. Throughout the '60s, however, they gradually came into their own as a live band, especially in the years after Brian left the road, staying off tour to work up new material in the studio.

Each of the first three Beach Boys live albums presents a very different portrait of a working band. Concert, which unlike the others captures the original lineup prior to Brian's departure from the road, is all youthful energy and goofing off, the very opposite of their methodical records from the time. Live in London, recorded in late 1968, a time when they remained at their studio peak but were receiving little credit for it, has the band playing in a country that appreciates and respect them and feeds off the energy of a loving crowd; accompanied by a bass section, its performances of the Pet Sounds and Wild Honey material are sparkling and surprisingly exuberant, even romantic at times, but they're marred slightly by Mike Love's often painful emceeing.

They continued getting better and gaining a deserved reputation as a dynamic, endlessly surprising live act, with deep, varied setlists and versatile performances showing off a band willing to evolve dramatically without losing touch with its past, especially after new recruits Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin of South Africa's the Flame joined up, rejuvenating and transforming the dynamic and breathing new life into old standbys. With Carl Wilson serving as a sort of ringleader during this period, which coincided with the fine albums So Tough and Holland, they almost feel like a fresh new group with simultaneous origins in California and British power pop and the more modest, less macho side of crunching, blues-infected stadium rock, with a bit of Stevie Wonder in the mix. They remained in most ways as idiosyncratic as they'd been in the late '60s and as effective at pleasing crowds as in their commercial peak, but they also were a group of musicians who were just plain great, and a thrill to listen to. In Concert captures them at their all-time stage peak, and it's an unmitigated joy to hear them attach reverence to their '60s work but to never be thoroughly stuck in it.

The unforced energy and depth of this performance owes everything to Ricky, Blondie and Carl, but the rest of the band slides in impeccably. Mike mostly shuts up for a change (or the compilers were kind enough to edit out his prattling), and Carl, Al and particularly Dennis have excellent chemistry with the audiences when they step forward. Though it doesn't achieve the intimacy of Live in London, this record honestly feels like it approximates the sensation of seeing a big band on tour in the '70s, only that band doesn't sound like the stagnant nostalgia act that the Beach Boys were soon to become, it sounds like a new band, one with so much potential in its future but mostly one that exists in a beautiful nostalgia-free moment of just reveling in the joy of performance. It's one of those rare times when a fan can be proud of this band for what they were once capable of.

The double album gathers up performances from a slew of different shows, not listed specifically on the package, so there's almost a Time Fades Away-like sense of life on the road chugging along within it. The best way to listen to it, though, is -- assuming you're already a big enough fan to know the albums of the period well -- to not look at the tracklist beforehand but rather just start playing the record and let the selections surprise you.

All twenty performances are exceptionally good, with the possible exception of a ridiculously fast-paced "Sloop John B," but the best performances are interestingly on the new material, much of which is superior to the studio versions, because -- presumably -- the songs have developed and loosened over time, the way a real band does. "Sail On, Sailor" soars without the wheezing Holland production; Carl sounds much more sure of himself when putting on "The Trader" live; "Marcella" and "Funky Pretty" become miraculously confident rock songs; the emotionally wrenching "Leaving This Town" slows down and sprawls out into a generous but not indulgent jam. An otherwise unreleased (except on certain rare copies of Holland) new song, "We Got Love," blends in nicely with these songs as well.

That's not to say that the Beach Boys sleep through their classics here; indeed, one of the strengths of In Concert is the way it builds to a climax of searing new arrangements of several of their most fondly remembered singles. The common denominator is that in this context, the songs still feel alive, not like the mere dredging up of past glories. It's also wonderful to hear the generally excited crowd -- who seem often confused but persuaded by the new stuff -- explode when "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "Good Vibrations" start. There aren't a lot of lesser-known album tracks from the '60s here, but the beautiful take on "Let the Wind Blow" alone might be enough.

Brian's absence is felt here, but Al and Carl fill his vocal parts in nicely; it's especially moving, if a bit haunting, to hear Carl talking about his brother as though he's no longer alive then launching into "Caroline, No," a song you might never have known you needed to hear him sing but you did. It's hard to contemplate the Beach Boys as a complete unit without Brian -- this is the only essential Beach Boys release that doesn't somehow involve him as a performer -- but In Concert firmly demonstrates the tremendous skill and showmanship of the rest of the band, especially as they matured beyond their formative period. It certainly is the last word on how they fared as musicians, with Carl in particular demonstrating astounding range and restraint as a guitarist, something hard to get a sense of on the group's records. The biggest disappointment about this album comes from the knowledge of how quickly this mind-bogglingly creative, sensitive, ambitious period, when Carl saw a way forward for the Beach Boys in a radically changed landscape for rock bands, unceremoniously ended.

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