Studying California almost always requires the examination of contrasts. The songwriting careers of Brian Wilson and Dave Alvin, two youths raised in the L.A. working class suburbs of Hawthorne and Downey, respectively, begin about 15 years apart, their perspectives defined by the specifics of time and place. Wilson, in the Beach Boys, captured innocence, youth and sunshine in the early ’60s; Alvin, in the late ’70s and ’80s in the Blasters and as a solo artist, reflected on loss, specifically the promises and culture of the Golden Gate state. Played side-by-side Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Southern California sounded like two very different places.
After a week of California classical perspectives in the West Coast, Left Coast series, Disney Concert Hall played host to the pop flip side in “Songs of the Sun” with Alvin taking the theme to heart and personalizing his statement. Wilson, backed by most of his band on acoustic instruments, gave a shortened version of his standard show.
Wilson’s 11-song set was filled with glorious, raise-the-roof harmonies, a celebration of girls, cars, teen angst, surfing, an a cappella cover of the Four Freshmen’s “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” and, for one pensive five-minute stretch, the Wilson-Van Dyke Parks masterpiece “Heroes and Villains.”
Alvin’s eight-song set, which included an impromptu “Surfer Girl,” was more stark and reflective, the sounds of sighs and pain rising from Greg Leisz’ slide work on an assortment of stringed instruments. In Alvin’s world, the waterway is a dry river, the radio plays oldies for separated friends and lovers, and the great hangout is but a memory, having burned down years ago. And in “Downey Girl,” his recent tribute to his hometown’s first celebrity, Karen Carpenter, Alvin uses biography to pose personal questions about pride and character, the sort of soul-searching Wilson and Tony Asher achieved on “God Only Knows” that Wilson sang with his usual crack-in-the-mettle persona.
Memory, more than the here and now that made Wilson a champion teen chronicler, supplies the depth in Alvin’s folk and blues-based tunes.
Where Wilson succeeded by taking the Hollywood dream and applying it to the local landscape and rock ‘n’ roll, Alvin stays inland and assumes the roots of the Southern refugees who made their way west a generation before his birth. One side of the California dream Wilson and Alvin describe is freedom in all its manifestations. On the other side, it’s a steady paycheck.
The Living Sisters — native Angelenos Inara George and Eleni Mandell with Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark — play light folk with angelic three-part vocals, a reminder of the debut album of the Roches from 30 years ago. “You Make Me Blue,” a song by George, daughter of the late Little Feat leader Lowell, shared the alchemy used by Wilson and Alvin, mixing doo-wop with folk music for glorious effect.
Opener Harper Simon shares considerable musical DNA with his father Paul, a resolutely non-California sound. His winsome personality, combined with deft finger-picking guitar style, strong wordplay and engaging melodies, made for an impressive four-song set. The reason for his inclusion on the bill, though, is a mystery.