Against my own better judgement, but acknowledging that these guys aren’t gonna be around forever, I plunked down good money this week ($80+) and went to the Turning Stone Casino in Oneida, NY to see the “Mike & Bruce” Beach Boys.
I’m well-known among my Beach Boys’ friends as a Mike Love detractor, if not full-on hater. It’s hard to forget, much less forgive his Hall of Fame speech, and his comment to the press in ’88 about “who has the #1 song in the country,” (comparing Kokomo to Brian’s then-newly-issued first solo album). And I’ve always held him personally responsible (post-Endless Summer) for his ham-fisted direction of the band as essentially an oldies act, spewing the same surf/sun/car mantra year after year while eschewing the more creative side of the band that had flowered in the early-70s.
Other than the 50th anniversary tour in 2012, I had not seen a Mike-led Beach Boys show since the 70’s. And I had no intention of doing so (I HAVE, however, seen Brian & his band 5 times since 2000, with tickets now in hand for my sixth, July 2 in Boston). But again, I’m painfully aware that there will be a day when we won’t be able to see ANY of these guys anymore, and that made me look at things in a different way. I also must admit that, being the big indie pop fan that I am (I’m a founding member of the power pop band, The Flashcubes), I was psyched to see Jeff Foskett and John Cowsill, not to mention Randell Kirsch, all of whom I own CDs by, sharing the stage.
There’s a Gin Blossoms’ song that says, “If you don’t expect too much of me, you might not be let down.” And maybe that’s why I liked this show so much. I went with very few expectations. I had seen plenty of YouTube videos of Mike & Bruce, and was generally underwhelmed with their presentation and execution. But then, of course, that was before Jeff Foskett entered the picture. The band I saw two nights ago, was top-notch in every way. One hit after another, performed flawlessly, with every harmony in place.
Mike kept the stage patter to a minimum (only one geriatric-toned quip about needing a nap), and let the music do the talking. The vocals were spread around, with Jeff nailing Darlin,’ Don’t Worry Baby and every Brian-falsetto part; John soaring on Help Me Rhonda; new member Brian Eichenberger (replacing Kirsch) doing a beautiful version of Then I Kissed Her; and Bruce Johnston sounding positively ageless on Disney Girls, Wendy and Do You Wanna Dance. Mike, of course handled the rest. And he was in very good voice throughout.
Instrumentally, this band doesn’t have the range of Brian’s band (who features real horns, woodwinds, strings, vibes, harmonica and creative percussion), but keyboardist Tim Bonhomme did a great job of approximating most of the sounds on all the Beach Boys’ great singles. And John Cowsill alone is worth the price of admission: a sensational drummer who drives the band with fire and power you just don’t expect to see in a band led by two septuagenarians.
The set was, of course, nothing but the early hits. In fact, the only two songs that were NOT pre-1965, and did not in some way evoke Mike’s surf/sun/car oldies-ethos (Kokomo, Rock & Roll Music, Goin’ To The Beach & Getcha Back ALL most certainly do) were Darlin’ (a real highlight) & Mike’s George Harrison tribute, Pisces Brothers (which I could’ve done without). I have seen online that recent sets have included Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring and Wild Honey (I would LOVE to have heard either or both), but I think those only appear at two-set theater shows, not the one long 35-song set that I saw.
But at this point in time, it would be hard to argue with Mike’s choice of repertoire. His is not the hipster crowd that finds and falls in love with Brian’s music (let’s call us Brian’s True Believers), generation after generation. This is John & Jane Walmart from Anytown, USA, and they come for the hits. And the Beach Boys have more than anyone.
So I really enjoyed the show, and found a new measured respect for Mike & Bruce. And when, during the penultimate romp through Barbara Ann, they came out front and danced in lockstep across the the stage like two old vaudevillians, I smiled. Like Statler & Waldorf – those two wisecracking Muppet curmudgeons – they seemed genuinely likable.
They are “keeping the summer alive” as the song said, and on a cold, dreary Tuesday night in upstate NY, a sold-out Casino crowd of 800 people left, warmed and fulfilled.