Every journey begins with a small step, and Saturday night at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the crowd got a glimpse of the man whose modest act started the Beach Boys' climb toward superstardom.
Before the band took the stage for its first-ever Segerstrom show, Wink Martindale — the Southern California disc jockey who was apparently the first to play the Boys' 1961 debut single, "Surfin'," on the air — gave a brief speech and noted his contribution to the band's history. Back then, the group was a regional combo with a single on the tiny Candix label, and the song's Billboard peak at No. 75 would have been a high point for most bands.
But most bands aren't the Beach Boys. When Martindale asked audience members in Segerstrom Hall to yell out the title of their favorite Beach Boys tune, the resulting cacophony of voices provided all the introduction the band needed.
For the next hour and a half, it was hits, hits and more hits, as the touring band led by Mike Love and Bruce Johnston tore through half a century of material — even if, predictably, the bulk of the tunes predated 1970. A cynic might argue that this version of the group, which lacks creative leader Brian Wilson and vintage members Al Jardine and David Marks, qualifies as the Beach Boys only in name. But the classic songs, most of them performed here in arrangements nearly identical to the studio originals, have a way of standing on their own.
The Segerstrom performance, billed as the Beach Boys Christmas Show, celebrated one of the last century's great artistic achievements and also one of its most durable cash cows. No doubt a figure exists somewhere for how much the Beach Boys' catalog is worth, but after decades of radio play, ad jingles, beach parties, movie soundtracks and more, the true value is probably immeasurable.
Given that the Beach Boys — unlike, say, Bob Dylan — aren't famous for reinventing their material live, the best way to summarize a concert like Saturday's might simply be to list the song titles. "I Get Around," "Surfin' U.S.A.," "Don't Worry Baby," "Surfer Girl," "Surfin' Safari," "Little Deuce Coupe," "Good Vibrations," "Fun, Fun, Fun," "California Girls," "Help Me, Rhonda" — they all sounded more or less the way you remember them.
Of course, with Wilson's precise arrangements as a model, it's hard to imagine them any other way. While no group of singers could entirely replicate the original band members' vocal blend, Love's and Johnston's voices sounded as boyish as ever Saturday, and their younger cohorts — Randell Kirsch, Tim Bonhomme, John Cowsill, Scott Totten and Love's son Christian — hit the notes deftly.
The one disappointment Saturday was that the band didn't delve into last year's "That's Why God Made the Radio," which, coming after two decades of near-dormancy in the studio, stands as an unprecedented comeback. The Wilson-led ballads that close that album update the classic Beach Boys sound with age-appropriate lyrics, and some of the more uptempo numbers, particularly the title track and "Isn't It Time," sound like tunes that would have been live staples for years had the album come out sooner.
Still, the band worked in a few surprises at Segerstrom, including the obscure 1963 "Ballad of Ole' Betsy," which Love, in a pseudo-serious introduction, dubbed "a love song about a car." Most welcome were "Getcha Back," an underrated, bittersweet single from the 1980s, and Johnston's "Disney Girls (1957)," a wistful ballad about pining for a simpler past.
The names cited in that song — Patti Page, Ricky and David Nelson — may seem like distant relics, but they predate the Beach Boys' early hits by just a few years. More than once Saturday, Love made joking reference to the group's advanced age. Early on, he declared that the band would pause for an intermission followed by a nap, while later, introducing "Disney Girls," he noted, "It's from our 'Surf's Up' album, which debuted in 1872."
And, no doubt, it will still play on in 2072. Whatever mysterious ingredients Love, Wilson and their bandmates mixed into those studio concoctions, they've proved intoxicating for half a century or more. Watching the crowd at Segerstrom, with twenty-something fans in the front row bobbing and singing along, it wasn't hard to imagine that these tunes will be the classical music of centuries from now.
In other words, that Wink guy must have had good foresight.