It’s a bit disconcerting to see the Beastie Boys’ name on a marquee in 2019. After all, it’s been nearly seven years since the death of Adam “MCA” Yauch, a key member of the trio who transformed themselves from cartoonish punk-rap brats, “as much Monty Python as Black Flag,” to wide-ranging hip hop innovators. But there it was, emblazoned on the marquee of a sold out Tower Theater on Friday as lines snaked around the block on either side.
As they strode onto a bare stage that night, surviving members Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz made clear that the audience should give up on expecting a Beastie Boys show. The three “stopped being a band” after Yauch’s passing, Horovitz declared before telling a quick yarn about a practical joke played on him by MCA that took 15 years to play out.
Ad-Rock’s admiration for his old friend’s “prank stamina” set the tone for “Beastie Boys Story,” an evening of stories recounting the band’s musical and personal evolution, wild experiences, and, most important, their friendship. At times the so-called two-person one-man show felt more like an Irish funeral than a theatrical experience, with Diamond and Horovitz warmly recalling Yauch for his prodigious talents and adventurous curiosity.
There was plenty of music over the course of the three-hour performance, but it came in the form of old recordings, which would often fade into the background as one of the Beasties raised the microphone to their lips — not to drop a rhyme, but to recall another improbable incident along their journey. That seemed to come as a bit of a surprise to some in the at times raucous Philly crowd, whose rock concert whoops and hollers tended to disrupt the rambling rhythms of the conversational show.
At moments those outbursts threw Diamond and Horovitz, who were already struggling with their timing and the show’s minimal staging, under the guidance (and occasional interjections) of Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze. Horovitz felt the need on more than once occasion to reassure the crowd that they had, in fact, rehearsed the show in advance. That didn’t stop it from feeling awkward and stilted at times, not helped by lapses into dad jokes and faux arguments. It was often difficult to reconcile the friendly, charming storytellers on stage with their pranksterish past selves in the photos and video clips that played on the screen behind them.
Jonze, who was also filming the performance for a planned feature, has had a long relationship with the Beasties. That notably includes the video for “Sabotage,” which featured the band playing dress-up as ’70s cop show action heroes in fake mustaches and ridiculous costumes. “Beastie Boys Story” echoed that ironically low-budget aesthetic, giving Mike D and Ad-Rock a few chances to throw on cheap wigs and silly accents, or to trot out in-person celebrity cameos by Jonah Hill and Tim Meadows (as Bob Dylan!). What was undeniably genuine was the friendship between the three, which became the warm-hearted focus of the show.