Despite the absence of kettle drums, a trademark Beach Boys instrument, Brian Wilson has found an exacting way to reproduce his fun ‘n’ sun classics and solo ditties with harmony and instrumental integrity intact — a testament to the abilities of his backing band the Wondermints and former Beach Boy associate Jeff Foskette.
The two-hour show was recorded for release on CD, which should demonstrate a secure Wilson who has lost none of the magic associated with his recordings.
While Wilson unveiled a new tune, “This Isn’t Love,” for “The Flintstones” sequel and an unissued number from 1983, concert was very much a celebration of the work he did as the chief Beach Boy in the 1960s. The triumphant return of a legend, yes, but in the end it was so much more than that: the elevation of a complete pop songbook into the realm of art.
Generally, it takes an energetic appreciation society to generate such a copious shift in attitude toward a life’s work, but here is Wilson, seemingly secure, performing marvelously balanced sets that allow each tune to shine in its individual glory as well as be seen as a piece of a big picture. For decades , the Brian Wilson fanatics have worshipped at the altar of “Pet Sounds” and “Smile”; the first of two shows demonstrated how that pile of 45s that came before and the artier aftermath are equally sacred in the pop music canon.
Wilson hasn’t been comfortable on a stage since 1966, yet the Wondermints and assorted colleagues give Wilson a studio-like surrounding to play each song with strict devotion to the originals. “All Summer Long” still clocks in at just a couple seconds over two minutes; “Good Vibrations” gets a solo on the theremin; “Kiss Me Baby” is sung in an octave that’s generally the domain of operatic altos; and, most exhilarating to watch, as many as six of the backing musicians sing at any given time.
The new song, “This Isn’t Love,” which is followed by the line “this is ecstasy,” has that trippy “Smile”-era sound that the band generates with aplomb. They do so not as students bowing to a master — or a 33-year-old master tape — but as professionals under Wilson’s direction; they excelled, for example, performing “Pet Sounds’ ” two instrumentals, the title track and “Let’s Go Away for Awhile.”
“The Little Girl I Once Knew,” a top 20 hit from late 1965, opened the evening, with Wilson sitting front and center, hands lightly on the electric piano. He would stay in this position all night — wouldn’t it be nice to hear him play bass, just once? —and keep his glances headed into the audience rather than toward the musicians behind him. He made the occasional comment and even asked a friend to hold up a lighter so he could find him. It’s all Brian being Brian, and he’s even willing to poke fun at himself, covering the Barenaked Ladies tune “Brian Wilson,” a lush number about lying in bed for days on end.
He sang lead on songs that had been handled on record by his brother Carl (“God Only Knows”) and Mike Love (too many to count) and relied on Foskette to hit the highest of high notes. The Wondermints’ Darian Sahanaja did a superb job with the bulk of the keyboard work and the boldest of the harmonies.
As much as this was Beach Boys splendor — “Surfer Girl,” “In My Room,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Do It Again” —the evening was a far cry from the act Love has led with Al Jardine and, until his death, Carl Wilson. That act, as exemplified by the constantly litigious Love, who managed to inject a nearly absurd spin on the band’s story in the recent ABC TV miniseries, has been obviously driven by commerce and gimmickry since the mid-’80s.
The give-and-take between audience and performer at a Beach Boys show is nostalgic sensation; at the Roxy, it was compassion and consideration. And Wilson even showed the audience how he shares their feelings toward important music — not only did he perform Phil Spector’s “Be My Baby,” but he also introduced it as the greatest record ever.
The CD culled from the weekend’s performances will be sold initially on BrianWilson.com beginning at the end of May. The disc is a bit of a promotional tool as Wilson prepares for a summer tour performing “Pet Sounds” in its entirety with symphony orchestras. The tour, which will also feature a 30-minute Beach Boys overture composed by Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, will run from July until Sept. 24, when it ends at the Hollywood Bowl.
Opening the night was Grant Lee Phillips, performing solo and with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. He drew from his quartet of albums for Slash, placing his songs in a unique, psychedelic-inspired folk twist. It’s a true pity he iscurrently label-less.