A year after Steve Martin and Martin Short took the stage to celebrate America’s Independence Day, the Hollywood Bowl has gone even more old school in 2023 with The Beach Boys who, on Sunday, July 2nd, kickstarted three consecutive days of Fourth of July firework-accentuated festivities with a procession of their greatest hits. With maestro Thomas Wilkins and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra adding a fantastic robustness to a rock ‘n’ roll discography spanning 62 years, older and newer fans, totaling a sold-out audience of 18,000 strong, were unmistakably in a convivial spirit. The American flag’s colors could be seen far and wide, with beach balls being bounced around by audience members who didn’t need much cajoling to get up and move to classic tunes. Dubbed “America’s Band,” it’s hard to argue The Beach Boys are anything but and, taken a step further, might also very well be California’s band, which makes the Boys’ mini-residency at the Bowl as ideal as it gets.
Granted, this is not the original quintet consisting of brothers Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson, in addition to their relative Mike Love, and close pal Al Jardine. Sadly, both Carl and Dennis passed away more than 25 years ago, and Brian and Al, due to a reputed schism with Love, are doing their own thing. Consequently, as the predominant frontman since the band’s inception in 1961, Love has helmed his own variation of The Beach Boys comprised of almost-original member Bruce Johnston who joined in 1965, guitarists Christian Love (son of Mike), John Wedemeyer, and Brian Eichenberger, along with keyboardist Tim Bonhomme, drummer Jon Bolton, saxophonist Randy Leago, and bassist Keith Hubacher. The Hollywood Bowl also saw the inclusion of honorary member John Stamos, a.k.a. Uncle Jesse of Full House, who, since 1985, has contributed as a percussionist and guitarist. Of course, given that this is The Beach Boys, every member gets in on the vocal action, to either be individually spotlighted or to participate in the trademark harmonies.
For the first 30 minutes, Wilkins and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra got the shindig off to a celebratory start with light classical fare, including a Jerry Goldsmith piece, “America the Beautiful,” and the “Armed Forces Salute,” which paid tribute to the branches of the military and those in attendance who have served.
Wilkins commented on the sense of belonging the crowd should understandably feel because of the men and women who have enlisted. “The next time you see someone in uniform, I hope you’re doing something trivial because if they’re not [serving in the military], you can’t do [something trivial],” remarked Wilkins, who was brimming with excitement in anticipation of playing along to The Beach Boys’ most renowned ditties.
At roughly 8:30 pm, as a video introduced the legendary band and a myriad of references in pop culture through the decades, The Beach Boys, clad in formfitting grey suits, walked onto the multicolored stage, with surfboards strewn about, sixty years after they first performed at the Bowl. Without delay, the band began their set list with 1968’s “Do It Again,” which quickly indicated that while he was no longer in his prime at 82, Love is still capable of affecting his famous, youthful-sounding timbre. This was followed by “Surfin’ Safari” from the band’s debut album (of the same name), one of many songs about California’s surfing lore, which also saw Stamos impress on his six-string guitar.
“Catch a Wave” was next, as clips of waves were shown on stage, and Bonhomme was acknowledged for his keyboarding prowess. This segued into one of the group’s biggest numbers, “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” a reinterpretation of a Chuck Berry song, and one of the first performances that truly utilized the extra musical weight provided by the orchestra.
Emboldened by Stamos’ cue, Love, who swiftly recognized how beautiful thousands of lit-up phones would look, then asked the audience to wave their smart devices as Stamos took the reins of a red, white, and blue-painted drum set during the engaging ballad, “Surfer Girl.” Besides the inherently sweet nature of the song, Eichenberger showed off his terrific upper register, which he would go on to do with “Little Deuce Coupe” and “I Get Around,” the latter of which was bolstered by the bevy of orchestral violinists and proved that Johnston, 81, hasn’t lost his extensive range.
Stamos, who was arguably the crowd’s favorite performer, continued to make an impression as a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and showman. After Love told a joke about Stamos being born the same year the Boys recorded “Be True to Your School,” and dating the TV star’s mom, the 60-year-old actor earned a fervent applause with a drum solo and then carried on dependably at his cymbals in “Getcha Back,” which additionally wowed with its stacked harmonies. And although Stamos never ceased being front and center in one capacity or another throughout the concert’s one-hour-and-twenty-five-minute duration, his involvement culminated with Jesse and The Rippers’ “Forever,” which underscored not only Stamos’ vocals, and just how close knit he and his Full House character Jesse have been with the band, but the life and legacy of best friend and co-star Bob Saget who tragically died last year. When Stamos spoke on the two things he’s learned most from the group, “family and love,” it was clear he wasn’t just paying lip service but being ultra-genuine.
Certainly, Stamos wasn’t the only one to have his fun in the sun. Main drummer Bolton dazzled in a performance of “Darlin’” where he also sang lead vocals. Bolton, whose passion could be felt numerous rows out, has a gritty tone that is a nice counterbalance to the “clean” vocals supplied by the rest of the band. Furthermore, Johnston, who once won a Grammy for songwriting, took charge on the keyboards as he dulcetly sang “Disney Girls” — an homage to the women he encountered in the 1950s and which ended on a literal high note. Similarly, Mike Love’s son Christian was heavily featured as he was tasked with, and succeeded, in doing The Beach Boys’ most praised track (and apparently Paul McCartney’s favorite), “God Only Knows,” a great justice. Christian garnered more applause by leading the catchy “Help Me Rhonda,” which had attendees heartily participating, as well as “Good Vibrations,” the bridge for which was voiced by Mike Love. Suffice it to say, it is a tune that resonates just as groovily as it did in 1966, with all the same Flower-Power evocations and can’t-resist clapping.
Though the massive hit of “Good Vibrations” closed out the main set to allow time for a tremendous fireworks display above the crescent Bowl (and what an amazing ten-minute display it was, with Wilkins and his crew timing their commemoratory anthems with the breathtaking pyro and a sizeable grid that memorably blazed with a rendering of the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge), the “excitations” chart-topper was not alone as a stand-up-and-sing-along crowd-pleaser. For example, a cheery rendition of “Sloop John B.” readied audiences for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” followed by the the unofficial state song, “California Girls,” then the “ba-ba,” boisterously diverting “Barbara Ann,” and the band’s last mainstream smash from 1988, the vacation-inspired “Kokomo,” which again illustrated Eichenberger as perhaps the best vocalist in the group.
Ultimately, when Mike Love, Johnston, Stamos and the remaining Beach Boys rejoined the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for their one and only encore, “Fun, Fun, Fun,” it was a reminder to the sea of patriotically dressed people that they indeed did have a joyful time. So many historical elements were intertwined and celebrated. On one hand, not only was the United States’ birthday enthusiastically heralded, but a long-running band, having played a crucial role in modern music, and a 101-year-old venue with justified landmark status, united to punctuate a noteworthy occasion. Not to mention, with Wilkins and his musicians being the onstage X-factors, the dedicatory proceedings, which were already seamlessly without error, were oftentimes elevated.
For more information on upcoming events at the Hollywood Bowl, and to purchase tickets, please visit hollywoodbowl.com