THE BEACH BOYS: IN CONCERT (1973)
1) Sail On Sailor; 2) Sloop John B; 3) The Trader; 4) You Still Believe In Me; 5) California Girls; 6) Darlin'; 7) Marcella; 8) Caroline No; 9) Leaving This Town; 10) Heroes And Villains; 11) Funky Pretty; 12) Let The Wind Blow; 13) Help Me, Rhonda; 14) Surfer Girl; 15) Wouldn't It Be Nice?; 16) We Got Love; 17) Don't Worry Baby; 18) Surfin' U.S.A.; 19) Good Vibrations; 20) Fun, Fun, Fun.
I've said it once, twice, and thrice, and I'll say it again: I do not fancy the idea of a Beach Boys live show, much less a live album. At their best (and even at their so-so), the Beach Boys were the perfect studio band, and such things as «spontaneity», «rock drive», «getting in the groove», etc., could only hurt them rather than help. No matter how hard they tried, they could not get the same kind of perfection on stage — nor could they re-cast their stuff in a significantly different way for live audiences, different enough to be justified. They could come close to perfection — but that only makes the whole experience even more frustrating, because who the heck needs close-to-perfection if you can get complete perfection instead?
And if anything in the Beach Boys' live catalog ever comes close to perfection, it is, without a doubt, the double In Concert album from 1973. The shows were recorded in 1972 and 1973, at the height of the band's artistic and «reputational» comeback. Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, as questionable as their songwriting contributions were to the band's catalog, added plenty of extra power on stage: good harmony singers and good extra musicians (especially Fataar, who really helped the band out at a time when Dennis had lost his drumming capacities through a hand injury. Not that Dennis felt good enough at the time to drum with as much passion as he did in the innocent Sixties — even if there were nothing wrong with his hands).
Then there is the amazing setlist, of course. The double LP allows to cover plenty of ground, running the gamut from the classic surf-era hits to the mid-Sixties artistic peaks and, finally, to the band's more recent experimental period — a whole four pieces from Holland are present (five, if we include 'We Got Love', another Chaplin/Fataar number originally intended for that record, but pulled off at the last moment to make room for the «hit single» 'Sail On, Sailor'). Anyone shrugging their shoulders and saying «so what?» should be reminded that, in a matter of months within the release of this album, The Beach Boys would drop the bulk of «serious» material from their setlists, and just go back to being the Beach Boys, concentrating on the old sunny day hits — sure it looked a bit quirky, what with all the band members sporting big bushy beards, but hey, as long as they keep paying for the tickets...
And if that wasn't enough, how about the big fabulous surprise of the show? NO MIKE LOVE BANTER WHATSOEVER. Repeat: MIKE. LOVE. SHUTS. THE. FUCK. UP. Not a single goddamn "Lost my head again!" anywhere in sight. It is almost like he existed only to take lead vocals on the old surfin' classics, for which he continued to remain the best choice. It is almost like paradise. No wonder this couldn't be kept up for much longer.
However, feelings become a little more mixed when we come to consider the subtle changes introduced in the live versions. 'Sloop John B' gets something like a million extra instruments, including countrified electric guitar, banjo (I think? I may be wrong here), and other stuff, cluttering the perfectly constructed musical card house of the original. It's not exactly 'Sloppy John B' in the end, but the bits of chaos annoy me. 'Help Me, Rhonda' gets a distorted hard-rock boogie line for its spine, which is fairly inadequate for the song's feather-light character — hell, why not a Tony Iommi tone if you are all for «toughening it up»? 'Funky Pretty', as if to justify its title, gets a genuine «funky» introduction that has nothing to do with the song itself, and the seams certainly show as they switch into the pop piano melody without a warning. 'You Still Believe In Me', in the place of the opening harpsichord/deep echoey vocal duo, gets an electric keyboard /Theremin introduction — nice, but, again, a rather poor substitute for the baroque beauty of the original. (And hearing Al Jardine do it instead of Brian is also saddening).
This list could go on a bit, but the illustration is sufficient: changes are few, and in most cases, they detract from the originals rather than re-open them in a new light. Exceptions would include 'Leaving This Town', slightly improved with an electric organ solo instead of the silly Emerson-style Moog solo on the original (but the song is still as un-Beach Boys as ever), and 'Marcella', one single case where the «toughening» works, since, according to Brian, the song was originally envisioned as sort of a Stones tribute, and the crunchier rhythm guitars and sharper slide solo guitars on here do convey some sort of an Exile On Main St. vibe, for a moment.
The same complaints go for every instance of a flubbed or «swallowed» vocal note — of which, granted, there are very few examples, but each one stabs through the heart. With Concert at least, you could ascribe these flubs to the band not being able to hear itself behind the yelling, but here they have no excuse — other than, admittedly, it is hard for the likes of Carl Wilson to play rhythm guitar and hold up a perfect voice melody at the same time, and it is utterly admirable that he is still able to do that, say, 90% of the time. But for those of us who expect nothing less than perfection from the way a Beach Boys album is delivered (technically, I mean — we cannot always expect ideal songwriting), this is still a serious letdown.
In Concert must be heard — throughout the 1970s, the Beach Boys remained a significant live attraction (in fact, as their studio reputation plummeted, their live one kept going up), and this album very well explains why. And yet I do not think that it is ever going to remain highly ranked on anyone's playlist. Thumbs up, because the record is unimpeachable on formal grounds, is still a major pleasure to listen to on its own, and a satisfying swan song for The Beach Boys, soon to be disbanded, reshuffled, restructured, and renamed «The Al And Mike Love Show».
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