All great American music is garage music, because it comes from a place of darkness and invention, a place of woodshedding, a place where limited circumstances are used to create exceptional and original art.
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Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, Scott Totten, John Cowsill, Randell Kirsch, Randy Leago, Tim Bonhomme, Christian Love and Keith Hubacher make the superhuman human: they return the greatest pop catalog of all time to the tangled, elated, sad and celebratory emotional garage where it was created. Beach Boys ’18 understand that just because the text is holy, that doesn’t mean that the text is sacred.
The Beach Boys ’18 do not want to show you postcards; they don’t want to grade you based on your knowledge of where the capo was set on the rhythm guitar on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” They want you to feel that same rush of awe and the same connection with your own emotions that you felt when you first heard the songs; they also want you to enjoy a vigorous, tight-but-loose band who treat the songs as celebrations, not as psalms. It’s not enough to reproduce this stuff – plenty of well-trained musicians can do that. But how do you not just follow the notes but also follow the trail of goosebumps?
The Beach Boys achieve this by having a band on stage made up of eight individuals, each of whom invest the catalog with vitality, personality, and wit. Each approaches their instrument and their parts with love, joy, charm and even a little arrogance. The two legacy-holders in the band – Mike Love and Bruce Johnston – have no trouble sharing the spotlight with the other Beach Boys: Totten, Cowsill, and horn player Randy Leago especially step forward, and provide support to the idea that we are seeing an actual living, breathing ensemble, the actual Beach Boys, and not just two old guys and a bunch of hired hands.
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The evening was full of such moments: “Disney Girls,” sung though the fainter, more emotional voice of 76 year old Bruce Johnston, took on a power, a Winterful happysad, that made it seem like one of the great Beach Boys songs of all time; this was one of the highlights of the set. Guitarist and vocalist Christian Love (Mike’s son) took “God Only Knows” (a song you can imagine no one but Carl Wilson singing) and he turned it into his own prayer. Drummer John Cowsill bit into “Darlin’” with an adamant power and passion that would have convinced you that he wrote the song himself. And Musical Director and guitarist Scott Totten sang “The Warmth of the Sun” with an intimacy and sentiment that made the 55-year-old song as sweet, blue and cool as a Nick Drake track.
But for me, the greatest revelation came during “Good Vibrations.”
To begin with, the Beach Boys – especially Totten and Cowsill – played the song as if they were a garage band (there’s that word again); they reveled in it, they celebrated it, they enjoyed the hell out of it. They treated “Good Vibrations” as a beloved classic, not as a classical piece. Secondly, this living, breathing, feeling, live rendition caused me to find something new in “Good Vibrations.” I have studied the Beach Boys the way some people have studied Star Trek, and experiencing a revelation – especially under the sonic burr and bright lights of a live performance – really is something special.
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