- The Washington Times - Friday, August 21, 2009

The Beach Boys haven’t taken a summer off since the 1960s.

“We do anywhere from 140 to 160 shows a year,” says lead vocalist Mike Love, who co-founded the band in 1961. “We’re always really busy in July and August.” During their first three years together, the California natives racked up 12 Top 40 hits. “Pet Sounds” followed in 1966, displaying a mastery of pop music that rivaled even the Beatles’ best work. The Beach Boys had quickly become America’s most beloved band, their harmony-saturated music championed by teenagers and professional critics alike.

“It’s great to see songs that you’ve co-created become classic, iconic Americana,” Mr. Love reflects. “It’s not like people have to beat us with whips and chains to get us out on tour, because it’s actually fun! It’s fun to go out and do your own music.” Mr. Love, 68, has performed his band’s summery catalog for nearly half a century. Although he’s thankful for the opportunity to have turned “what would have been a hobby into a successful career,” the singer says his band never approached songwriting with such longevity in mind.

“Growing up as teenagers in Southern California, we simply realized that there were things going on in daily life that weren’t being sung about,” he says. “Our first hit song was released in the fall of 1961, and it was supposed to be a folk song. We liked that kind of music, but we were more into R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, so we recorded a song that Brian [Wilson] and I had made up called ‘Surfin’.’ Then we recorded ‘Surfin’ Safari’,’ which got us signed to Capitol Records.” California’s booming surf culture continued to serve as the Beach Boys’ inspiration for years. The hits dried up in the 1970s, however, as principal songwriter Brian Wilson battled with mental illness and Carl Wilson assumed leadership. Although Carl’s guidance helped shape the stunning orchestral strains of “Sunflower,” the Beach Boys enjoyed only a fraction of their previous success.

In one of pop music’s most storied comebacks, the group returned to mainstream recognition in 1988, when “Kokomo” topped the charts in America and Australia. Today, the single remains the Beach Boys’ most popular song in concert.

“Everyone sings along to the chorus,” Mr. Love explains. “We have several choruses like that, but none are as popular as, ‘Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya.’”

The Beach Boys’ tours have become an annual institution, as integral to the summer experience as pool openings and backyard barbecues. Such a legacy is more than evident in the band’s live audiences, whose constituents span as many generations as the Beach Boys’ own catalog.

“We have our original fans, who started out with us in the early ‘60s,” Mr. Love says, “but we also have their children, and sometimes their grandchildren as well. The Beach Boys’ music is never out of the public’s ear, so we see a huge, widespread range of ages in the audience. You see 5-year-old kids bopping in the audience, and you also see your 50-, 60-, and 70-year-old kids doing the same thing. It’s fun. I think we’ve always accentuated the positive in our music, and people go to a Beach Boys show predisposed to enjoying some good vibrations.”

The Beach Boys will perform an afternoon show at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center on Sunday. Tickets for the 2 p.m. performance start at $25.

Back to basics

Robert Francis released his first album in 2007, filling its 10 tracks with dusty tales of loneliness and broken romance. Sung in a world-weary baritone, the songs resonated with the conviction of someone twice his age, making “One by One” one of the strongest folk records in years.

The Los Angeles teenager has since evolved into a globetrotting adult. His music has grown accordingly, shrugging off the layered beauty of “One by One” for something more straightforward. Recorded in one week, the sophomore effort “Before Nightfall” unveils Mr. Francis’ new approach.

“It happened naturally,” he says of the evolution. “I was naive, hopeful and a bit more patient when I did ‘One by One.’ I had all the time in the world to sit there and explore different sounds. This album was sort of my reaction to the past. It feels very appropriate for what I’m going through now.”

“One by One” was produced by Mr. Francis himself over a yearlong period. Violin, pedal steel, glockenspiel and electronic loops all added flourishes to the rootsy songwriting, while Mr. Francis’ two sisters flanked their brother’s voice with harmonies.

Although the siblings make additional appearances on “Before Nightfall,” the album is mostly free of the ornate arrangements characteristic of its predecessor.

“We tracked things live with minuscule overdubs,” says the songwriter, who hired veteran producer Dave Hardy to helm the project. “I wanted to steer away from the sort of luxury I had on the first record. I wanted it to be raw, stripped-down and bit more fervent.”

During a recent performance in Ann Arbor, Mich., Mr. Francis howled his way through a 45-minute set of heartland rock ‘n’ roll. Backed by a three-person band, he struck a balance between intimacy and boisterous showmanship, crooning in a wounded falsetto one minute and unleashing a loud, full-throated chorus the next. Even the older songs were reshaped into nuggets of pastoral rock, the best of which evoked a young Bruce Springsteen.

“The live show is pretty intense,” he admits. “With this band, we like things to sound as immediate as possible. That’s how we did it on record, and it’s how we do it live.”

Robert Francis performs at the Iota Club on Saturday. Riffs alum Priscilla Ahn will headline the show, which begins at 8 pm. Tickets are $15.

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