There is one point to a 50th anniversary tour: nostalgia.
Of course, in the case of the Beach Boys there is the sidebar of fractured relationships, of the fact that until February’s Grammy Awards, Brian Wilson hadn’t graced the stage with bandmates Al Jardine, Dave Marks, Bruce Johnston and cousin Mike Love since 1996 or toured with them in 46 – yes, 46! – years.
But the reason tickets are flying for this reunion – and indeed, Saturday’s show at Chastain Park Amphitheatre, the first of the season, was about 90 percent full – is that fans who grew up groovin’ to the group’s sun-dappled pop hits want to relive that magic one more time. Or at least bring their kids to witness it.
In that regard, Saturday’s show, the fourth date on a tour slated to stretch through August, succeeded mightily. With a set list spanning more than 40 songs – a gasp-inducing mix of classics, covers and album cuts – fans could hardly gripe about not getting to hear their favorite.
And the band backing the Beach Boys, a collection of the tremendous musicians who have toured with Wilson in recent years as well as John Cowsill and Scott Totten from Love’s version of the Beach Boys, can only be described as pillars of sound.
So yes, Wilson recites lyrics more than sings them and Love brings a minimalist frontman approach, a hand wave here or a careful spin there, with both providing somewhat rough lead vocals. But throughout the 2 ½-hour two-set show, the Beach Boys’ hallmark – their harmonies – were impeccable, a collaboration among all 14 people on stage, but anchored by the searing falsetto of guitarist Jeff Foskett.
The wonky lead vocals didn’t seem to faze the crowd too much, though, as they head-bobbed through “Surfin’ Safari” and swooned along with “Surfer Girl,” saving their get-up-and-clap energy for late-show singalongs “California Girls” and “Help Me, Rhonda.”
While we all know the Beach Boys are one of the most chart-friendly acts in music history, hearing just a small portion of their catalog reminded not only of the breadth of their Wilson-led genius, but the quality of these songs. It might sound easy, but stuffing such monstrous amounts of melody into such compact compositions takes a skill rarely – if ever – heard since their heyday.
And as much as casual fans engage with the frothy portion of their trove – such as the cute group of mature ladies who literally shook their pom-poms at the guys during the cheerleader ode, “Be True to Your School” – the most enduring Beach Boys songs are the ones shaded with introspection and melancholy.
“When I Grow Up (To Be a Man),” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “In My Room” and “God Only Knows” are such poignant gems in pop music history, and they glisten agelessly on this tour. And as far as musical masterpieces go, “Heroes and Villains,” with all of its tempo changes and quirky percussion flourishes, stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of the Beatles’ ambitious works.
“Brian thinks of everything. He had to put it all in one song,” Jardine quipped.
Throughout the show, there wasn’t a huge amount of banter among the principals onstage, probably just as well considering the stilted give-and-take between Wilson and Love when Love told the story of the origin of “Surfer Girl” and Wilson responded mostly with a vacant stare from behind his white piano.
But there was no obvious Eagles-like feeling that this outing is staged solely for a paycheck and a victory lap, either.
These guys seem to truly care about each other and love these songs, and they all took at least one turn in the spotlight – notably Johnston (whom Love reminded the crowd is the Grammy-winning songwriter of Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs”) on the sweet, nicely aged ballad “Disney Girls” and Jardine on a cover of The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me,” tweaked for gender purposes to “Then I Kissed Her.”
But the emotional apex of the night came with the appearance of the deceased Wilson brothers – Dennis and Carl – through the magic of video technology.
As video of Dennis singing “Forever” played on a video screen behind the stage, the band played and harmonized in sync. A few songs later – after a chilling rendition of “In My Room” – the band repeated the trick with video of Carl performing “God Only Knows.”
“There is nothing like the real thing,” Love said at the close of the sublime song.
The band took a quick break from looking back to give fans a preview of their new album, “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” expected to be released in June.
The title track, a midtempo chugger is stocked with familiar chiming guitar and a wistful glance at the emotional importance of music. But while it, too, is laced with nostalgia, it at least signifies a Beach Boys future.