God only knows it was a matter of time until the Recording Academy picked the Beach Boys as the recipient of one of its annual all-star tributes, and the group’s legacy isn’t done any shame with “A Grammy Salute to the Beach Boys,” airing Sunday night at 8 ET/PT on CBS (and for on-demand streaming on Paramount+). No wrong harmonies are struck, literally or figurative, in a two-hour show that starts out feeling a little bit by-the-numbers but eventually lands on a series of knockout covers fit for a Wilson.
Are you surprised that Brandi Carlile would be the highlight of a tribute special? Then come out from under your rock and do stay up late enough to catch both of her performances on the show, since she is one of a handful of artists granted both solo and duet slots in the setlist. First in the running order, she has a version of “In Your Room” that can’t really be considered “solo,” since she’s joined by bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth for an arrangement that has their modern mastery of three-part harmony paying homage to the Boys’ sub-incarnation as a balladic vocal trio. You hope for something transformative in tribute performances like these, and you know you’re getting the moment Carlile lends her perfectly subtle vibrato to the “roo-oo-oom” and “a-frai-ai-aid” to some of the opening lines. She and the Hanseroths make the bridge feel you’re doing a gentle waltz while enveloping yourself in a self-assuring hug, before the falsetto ending spoils that warmth with a chill down your spine. Yeah, it’s that good.
And so it the duet that ends the show, with John Legend on “God Only Knows,” where two pros show what can be done with simpler two-part harmony, honoring the spirit of the unsurpassable “Pet Sounds” original with blended vocals that, for a couple of bars in the chorus, almost make it sound like a brand new song. (But don’t worry, still a great one.)
The other collaborative efforts are strong, too: You can’t exactly say that Jim Jones of My Morning Jacket and Beck do anything transformative with the penultimate “Good Vibrations,” but you realize that it does really take two to pull that particular number off in any fashion, and to succeed with such an essentially un-coverable song at all deserves some credit.
In contrast, a medley of “Surfin’ USA” and “Fun Fun Fun” is not going to require such heavy lifting, and its lead singers, the Struts’ Luke Spiller and the Pretty Reckless’ Taylor Momsen, freed up by the less sophisticated demands of those two early ’60s songs, bring just the right amount of actual rock ‘n’ roll attitude to make something fresh out of them. They’re bringing a bit of glam to the beach, and it doesn’t wilt in the sun.
The Momsen/Spiller team-up is one of four numbers out of the 21 in the show that lean a little harder into rock. Another is Fall Out Boy’s cover of the Beach Boys’ cover of Bobby Freeman’s late ’50s hit, “Do You Wanna Dance” (also known as “Do You Want to Dance,” for the sticklers out there who study old 45 labels to see how titles get changed). As the Ramones proved with their own cover later on, it’s a song that transmutes well into anything vaguely in the field of punk, and FOB does not blow it. It would be reasonable to hope for something similarly thrashy when Weezer takes on “California Girls,” but, a little disappointingly, they play it about as straight as any house band would.
My Morning Jacket gets to tackle “I Get Around” toward the end of the show (Jim James being one of those handful of people who is allowed double-duty), and it feels for a while like they’re going to be painting that golden oldie kinda by numbers, too. But before it’s over, MMJ suddenly turn it unexpectedly into a guitar jam, one that may not have a lot to do in those few bars with what Brian Wilson and Mike Love wrote, but still a good deal of fun fun fun. Out in the audience, Carlile is seen striking the traditional fanboy posture of head down with pinky-and-forefinger extended above her head, and all is right with the rockin’ world.
But, good car-and-beach times notwithstanding, it’s abject beauty that you really come to the Beach Boys for, if you’re any kind of Brian Wilson head. Who provides that, in this show, in the prettiest concentrated doses, besides Carlile, of course? Since you ask, let’s name a few. LeAnn Rimes slays “Caroline No” — no frills, just a fantastic voice wringing all the pathos there is to wring out of a tragic ballad about a girl who has betrayed the world by getting a haircut.
St. Vincent, who is becoming a surprising but welcome veteran of these all-star salutes, gives the show’s arguably most dramatic reading with “You Still Believe in Me,” seeming a little like a porcelain ballerina who’s just been brought to life and let out of the music box that the tune’s arrangement has always evoked. Of course, it’s actually one of the Beach Boys’ least naive early classics — the hero is admitting he’s been a cad — but St. Vincent nicely catches the dumbstruck-ness of a narrator who’s shocked to be forgiven and offers one of the 1960s’ great melodies as thanks.
Norah Jones nails the essence of “The Warmth of the Sun” while adding a piano part that’s a little sly; at first you’re thinking it’s the jazz influence, as one would, and then you’re thinking, no, maybe it’s countrypolitan. Either way, it’s a welcome new take on something you probably weren’t expecting to be taking any twists in 2023.
Mumford and Sons take an even bigger departure with “I Know There’s an Answer,” treating it as a folk-trio ballad while the house band takes six, accompanied by a fellow blowing into an upright wind instrument that looks like a mis-sawed piece of lumber you’d find in the discard pile behind Home Depot. It’s cool.
If the show has a truly surprising knockout punch, though, it’s Pentatonix’s version of “Heroes and Villains” — maybe not so shocking if you’re a day-one megafan of the a cappella quintet, but still pleasingly so for those of us who wouldn’t necessarily to expect them to take on something so… edgy. And maybe that’s the wrong word for something that’s as close to an all-out vocal symphony as the one “hit” from the legendary “Smile” material is, but watching the fivesome settle in in front of music stands with charts (which they rarely glance at) doesn’t really prepare you for the great, loud blast of exquisite sound they’re about to provide, passionately singing Van Dyke Parks’ tumble of words as if they made perfect sense.
Beyond that, the remaining songs mostly sound like you think they’re going to sound — credible and comfortingly familiar. Country vocal groups Little Big Town and Lady A do “Help Me Rhonda” and “Surfer Girl,” respectively, as a polite rave-up and a lullaby. The guys from Hanson lend family vocals to the party anthem “Barbara Ann,” ironically the Wilson brothers song that least benefits from blood harmony. Performing in collaboration with Take 6, Michael McDonald gets the words of “Don’t Worry Baby” just a little bit off, but the song is not even a little bit worse for the wear. Beck’s “Sloop John B” and Charlie Puth’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” are just a little bit boring in playing it safe, but they are still nice. Foster the People doesn’t mess with “Do It Again” too much, but it remains one of the Beach Boys’ best rabble-rousers. No one will ever sing “Sail on Sailor” nearly as effectively as Blondie Chaplin did, but Legend (in his other turn at bat on the show) does a good job of starting a party with it.
And although no one will accuse Andy Grammar’s version of “Darlin’” of doing anything even slightly off from the original version, full kudos to anyone who can take one of the late Carl Wilson’s gustiest lead vocals and make you say… hey, that guy does not completely pale in the shadow of Carl Wilson.
The most pleasant surprise of the show might not be any of the performances, but how good the band is at leaning toward faithful replications without sounding at all like they’re recording karaoke backdrops. Early on, if you’re a student of players, you will recognize faces like that of Abe Laboriel Jr., the longtime drummer for Paul McCartney, and guitarist Jason Falkner, who’s lately played in the touring bands of St. Vincent and Beck, and his Jellyfish partner, keyboardist Roger Manning, and know that you’re in good hands. Savvy fans will definitely be waiting till the end credits to see who the musical director was, but here’s a spoiler on that — the very proficient Mike Elizondo.
Props, also, to the special’s camerapeople and editors, who know that viewers will want to see not just the front-people but some of these classic licks on-camera, whether it’s a French horn or the synth guy recreating a theremin or just Elizondo’s hands as he plays the bass lick that makes “God Only Knows” start to come alive even before the singers appear.
What about the Beach Boys themselves? They’re up there in a box at the Dolby Theatre, waving and clapping and (except for the perpetually straight-faced Brian) smiling to be honored. Besides Wilson and Love, placed on opposite ends of the row, it’s nice to see Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and the less often visible early member David Marks, together again at last to celebrate their 60th anniversary. Why don’t they perform? We can speculate about a half-dozen very possible or probable reasons why that’s not happening; we fear we missed any window for that. In real life, things don’t always end in fun fun fun, individually or collectively. But there’s still something sweet about having them all there to soak in the warmth of the room. From surf-and-cars to a celebration that ends with Carlile air-kiss goodnight… if this is it for “reunions,”, not a bad way to go out.
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