Up to this point, there really hasn’t been a notable 50-year anniversary for a major rock ‘n’ roll band. But with some of the genre’s most important acts fast approaching that mid-century mark (the Beatles (post-Ringo), the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Pink Floyd), the next few years will undoubtedly see a morass of reissues, reunions, retrospectives and historical exhumations. But the Beach Boys are first in line, and the group has reformed with all of its surviving members, burying personal and professional animosity to record a new album and tour the world.
With last year’s lavish release of the aborted 1967 masterpiece “Smile,” the band members finally showed a willingness to embrace the era that represented both an artistic peak and the breaking point for its principal creative force — Brian Wilson. It is Wilson’s presence on this tour and especially his role as principal songwriter-producer for the Beach Boys’ forthcoming album, “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” that makes this reunion so historically significant. The group hasn’t worked this closely with Wilson since the late ’60s.
Saturday’s sold out concert at the Bowl was a thorough, rapidly paced exploration of the band’s broad catalog. The five original Beach Boys were positioned at center stage with Wilson seated behind a white grand piano. Mike Love, standing in the middle, embraced his longtime role as the charismatic if hopelessly cheesy frontman, singing lead on a slew of fast-paced rockers (“Little Honda,” “Hawaii”) and endlessly plugging the group’s forthcoming studio album. Love’s voice, like that of all of the Beach Boys vocalists, no longer easily operates in the upper register, but his shrill, teenage warble still seems to represent and capture the authentic Beach Boys sound.
Wilson soon took over lead vocal duties, singing a selection of ballads that included “Little Surfer Girl,” “Marcella” and “This Whole World.” Though typically awkward onstage, Wilson was, for the most part, present and engaged in the performance. He often made conducting motions to drummer John Cowsill, accenting key rhythmic cues and entrances with great enthusiasm. After some playful banter, Bruce Johnston delivered a tender rendition of “Disney Girls,” and Al Jardine, in the group’s strangest juxtaposition, covered Leadbelly’s “Cotton Fields.”
The auxiliary musicians were absolutely crucial to the band’s live sound, none more so than Jeff Foskett, who held down the majority of the high falsetto harmony parts and added much needed power and clarity to the vocal arrangements. After a breezy run through the stellar, doo wop-leaning new song “Isn’t It Time” and a couple of classic singles (“Don’t Worry Baby,” “Little Deuce Coupe”), the band left the stage for a brief intermission.
The second portion of the set was oriented mainly in the group’s artistic golden age, plucking choice cuts from “Pet Sounds,” “Smile” and “Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!).” Early in this second portion, the band members were joined by a number of their children, performing under the name California Saga. It was a bizarre move that only the Beach Boys could have orchestrated — a strange detour placed directly in between a series of unquestionably brilliant musical moments.
Toward the end of the set, the band executed a pair of emotional tributes to deceased band members Carl and Dennis Wilson. “Forever” and “God Only Knows” were delivered with the group “backing up” previously recorded vocal takes from the departed Wilson brothers. A furious, up-tempo finale including “Good Vibrations,” “Help Me Rhonda” and “Surfin’ USA” capped the main set and the band returned for a brief encore, ending with a jubilant rendition of “Fun Fun Fun.”