LOS ANGELES, CA- There are few things I love as much as seeing an older band that embraces the nostalgia factor, leaning into their greatest hits, and showing their fans a good time. The Beach Boys are a classic example of this type of group, and their show at the Hollywood Bowl July Fourth Fireworks Spectacular was a rockin’ good time. They performed with John Stamos, alongside conductor Thomas Wilkins and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in a night that featured crowd-pleasing hits, goofy jokes, and throwback photos.

They literally set the stage for summer fun. Surfboards! Lawn chairs! Brightly-colored beach towels! The items were set up in small vignettes, making the crowd feel like guests at their beach party, ready to head off to grill some burgers on the sand.

The show opened with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, which launched into a series of patriotic marches. They also returned to the stage at the end of the night for one last fanfare, accompanied by booming fireworks and the raucous cheering of the holiday-weekend crowds.

Conductor Thomas Wilkins always brings joy to the stage. He’s clearly a good sport, appearing in a variety of fun, crowd-pleasing shows each year. This is a man who is comfortable sharing the stage with everyone from the Muppets to a wide variety of human stars. He hyped up the audience, calling for a special cheer for the concertmaster and cracking jokes about how anyone who remembered various songs must be old.

The highlight of the first portion of the night was the “Armed Forces Salute,” during which the name of each military branch was called out. Members and veterans of each branch were invited to stand during their respective sections, and Wilkins explained that he liked to do this song while it was still light enough out to see the service members who were standing. Loud audience applause greeted each group as they rose to their feet. The orchestra played a variety of stirring music, including pieces by composers ranging from John Williams to George M. Cohan. The audience was largely clad in red, white, and blue, and the music was heavy on the brass – it was a perfect fit for the holiday weekend. I felt like I’d made a mistake not buying one of those light-up flower crowns from the vendors at the gates. Next year!

After the patriotic orchestral portion of the evening and a video intro, the Beach Boys hit the stage. This is a group that knows what their fans love, and they consistently deliver. They played hit after hit, interspersed with goofy jokes and accompanied by video montages reflecting on their career. The orchestra played along with them, elevating the songs with the power of so many backing musicians.

The Beach Boys have had complicated internal dynamics since the 60s, and they have long toured as separate groups. This performance was by Mike Love’s band. If you didn’t know better, some of the tone of the video clips might make you think all the other original members were dead rather than some just doing their own thing. It’s a tragedy for music that the cousins are so permanently divided, but the result is competing visions of how to present their work. Having seen both the Mike Love version and the Brian Wilson / Al Jardine shows multiple times, I’d say they’re both great but provide completely different experiences. The Wilson/Jardine tours feel almost like a holy experience where fans of the troubled genius come out to pay tribute to an artistic legend, a musical god, an idol. By contrast, the Love version is a party. They always get a crowd on its feet, dancing and singing the night away.

Originally hailing from Hawthorne, CA, the Beach Boys are hometown heroes. Audience members cheered as the band shouted out local beaches in “Surfin’ USA.” Their Southern California is a naive and wholesome fantasy, a summer of nothing but outdoor fun and romance – an illusion in the 60s and almost a fever dream today. These shows are pure escapism.

At the Hollywood Bowl, the Beach Boys were joined by John Stamos. Yes, that John Stamos. He frequently performs with them, and the band joked that he had been able to join them unexpectedly due to the Hollywood writers’ strike. Stamos moved around the stage, switching from guitar to drums to bongos, even “surfing” on the drum kit at one point. Whenever you see him on stage with the Beach Boys, he always looks like he’s living the dream. This time, however, was tinged with sadness as he tearfully dedicated the song “Forever” to his late friend, Bob Saget. Overall, it’s not a teaming I would have expected, but they make it work. It fits with the “crowd-pleasing” motif.

Every summer, it’s clear that adding an orchestra makes everything better. From action movies to surf music, live orchestral backing adds a power that’s hard to describe in words but that lifts you up and fills the night with a rich sound. Add in a warm summer night, and the Hollywood Bowl is, as always, magic.

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