HOLDREGE — When asked to describe the sound of The Beach Boys, performer Mike Williamson uses the word “unique” to separate that band from the rest of the music of the 1960s.
“In Brian Wilson’s approach to composing and arranging, even in the early, simple copies of Chuck Berry and Little Richard rock ‘n’ roll songs, there are these hooks and tweaks of Brian’s,” Williamson said. “His love of The Four Freshmen and his obsession with Gershwin, the whole classical and jazz influences, especially in the vocal arrangements — it’s right there. And when talking about The Beach Boys, it always comes back to the vocal harmonies.”
The unique blend of voices caused fans of rock ‘n’ roll to pause and listen to this music centered on surfing, cars and romance.
“It was a totally unique thing,” Williamson said in an interview from his home near Atlanta, Ga. “It was something that nobody else had done. There were other harmony bands — The Beatles, the folk bands and the British Invasion bands — but The Beach Boys came at harmony from a completely different place, which was from big band era music of jazz vocals and four-part arranging.”
Central Nebraska audiences can hear the sound of ’60s surf music when Sail On, a Beach Boys Tribute, performs at 3 p.m. Sunday at The Tassel in Holdrege.
“There’s nothing else that sounds quite like The Beach Boys,” said Williamson, who performs on keyboards and vocals for the band. “It’s instantly recognizable, the sound of their voices and the sound of their harmonies — from the simplest song to the most complicated material. The instant you hear it, it’s recognizable.”
For Williamson, all great pop songs rely on strong lyrics and a catchy tune. Adding a youthful naivety to the music only helps to solidly identify the sound — and the themes — of The Beach Boys.
“When you go into songs like ‘God Only Knows’ and the later stuff, the lyrics are really melancholy and very confessional,” Williamson said. “I’ve talked for endless hours to fans of the music and they identify with that, too. And maybe it has to do with sincerity of the writing, whether it is an adolescent theme or a more developed theme of adulthood. And then there’s the longing for the simplicity of adolescence when all you had to worry about was romance. I think everybody yearns for that when they’re paying bills and dealing with adulthood.”
Williamson understands that the group, founded in 1961 and featuring brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, and their cousin Mike Love, along with their friend Al Jardine, has a complicated history. Conflict between the members caused stress on the group. Six years later the group was in shambles with Brian Wilson devoting his time to composing.
“Brian lived through his music as a composer,” Williamson said. “That’s the mark of a great artist, I guess. Beethoven was the same way, I think. Brian’s emotions and his state of being were very evident in the music.”
Some critics consider the music of The Beach Boys as simplistic. Williamson disagrees.
“I’ve been working in music since I was 19,” he said. “I’ve done everything from blues to folk to rock — just about everything. And I’ve worked with some of the guys in the band for many years doing retro music by The Beach Boys. We were always hesitant to do an entire set of Beach Boys music, you know, to climb that mountain. We were afraid to bite off more than we could chew. It’s a lot — and the music is difficult.”
Even the most simplistic three-chord rock ‘n’ roll song includes four-part harmony on top of it.
“It’s all got to be exactly in tune, every single song,” Williamson said. “There’s no break. There’s no long instrumental things and everything is condensed down to two and a half minutes at most. It’s a tough set. The only thing I can personally think is harder to do was a jazz standard set, like big band music of the American Songbook.”
He compares the singing to the way bluegrass bands harmonize.
“Any vocal group will tell you that getting the parts all in tune when there’s no electronics involved, like bluegrass bands, that in itself is an amazing, almost athletic feat to get it all right and in tune across four people,” Williamson said. “And then when you add a rock song underneath, it’s a juggling act, for sure.”
For the members of Sail On, those requirements make performing the music of The Beach Boys enjoyable.
“But that’s what we love about it,” he said. “As musicians, that’s what drew us to the music and keeps us coming back. It’s always fresh, it’s always a challenge. You can never laze through the set.”