The irony of it all, that Brian Wilson finally performs live the masterpiece that could only be made after his retirement from touring with the Beach Boys, gets lost in the joy the man creates by romping through one of pop music’s landmark works and the hot rod full of hits he’s created. For once, the demand for old material is not an exercise in nostalgia but a reclamation of art for the people as it has never been heard before. John Mauceri, the principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl, has been reviving lost pieces — many made in Hollywood — for a decade; this is the pop side of that equation. So why not start with the single greatest album of the rock ‘n’ roll era, one that was recorded a mere mile east of the Cahuenga Pass?
The 13 songs of Wilson’s 1966 artistic triumph were performed in order Sunday after a thrilling round of Van Dyke Park’s 25-minute overture of Wilson themes and a healthy dose of Beach Boys hits, followed by more hits. It was a spectacular three-hour Beach Boys marathon presented with the precision Wilson demanded in the studio as the mastermind — and then lost mind — of the Beach Boys. And as well as the band did its job — the L.A. pop band that backs Wilson, the Wondermints, seems to improve daily — the evening was just as fun as a Beach Boys revival show in the mid-1970s.
Wilson, whose between-song banter was on occasion bizarre and even included his attempt to yell as loud as the audience, thanked his “Pet Sounds” co-writer Tony Asher from the stage for being “the greatest lyricist in the world.” In the 1990 liner notes for the album (the first time it was issued on CD) Wilson wrote, “I experimented with sounds that would make the listener feel loved,” a contrast at times to the lyrical content that examines self-doubt, reassurance, obsessive love and letting love fade into memory. Asher’s words, though, make “Pet Sounds” a marvel as much as Wilson’s compositions.
The qualities that made the album so remarkable were displayed to their fullest Sunday. Wilson, singing slightly flat at times and talk-singing at others, brought an elderly vulnerability to the lyrics of songs such as “You Still Believe in Me” and “Caroline No,” their sentiment standing up to 34 years of wear and tear so much that “Sloop John B.” comes off as timeless as a campfire tune in the public domain.
Bandmates sang harmonies and leads unerringly, though Wilson’s late brother Carl is sorely missed whenever another singer attempts the great love song “God Only Knows.” Elsewhere, the band and orchestra maneuvered their way through Wilson’s tricky orchestrations with aplomb, even with a curious mix of instrumentation such as chromatic harmonica, banjo and two electronic keyboards (“I Know There’s an Answer”). And not only did the music flow forward tautly, the mix was surprisingly even aside from the occasional errant tom-tom or bicycle horn. Orchestra made a delicious string swirl to connect “That’s Not Me” to “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder”) and saxophonist Paul Mertens was given the opportunity to stretch out the album’s two instrumentals, “Let’s Go Away for Awhile” and “Pet Sounds,” perf of the latter being far more compelling. Otherwise, songs were kept to the album versions, right down the sounds of a train and Wilson’s dogs barking at the conclusion.
Unlike so many songs from the era, these need no embellishing. Somewhere there may be critics of the album or those who feel it doesn’t belong so high on a pedestal but there is an undeniable truth: Virtually every major rock band of consequence eventually turns to what Wilson did at the age of 23 and makes its own attempt at a thoroughly adult album, based on songcraft, utilizing the recording studio as an extra bandmate. For artists whose work seemingly never veers close to the pristine quality of Beach Boys harmony, there’s still the influence of Wilson’s shifting meters and keys that were unheard of in pop music before “Pet Sounds.” In 1966, when “Pet Sounds” was recorded in the Capitol Tower, he elevated himself to a peer class of Phil Spector, Burt Bacharach and Lennon-McCartney — and he has stayed there ever since. Remember — they were making singles, “Pet Sounds” is an album.
Much of the non-“Pet Sounds” music was similar to the sets performed at the Roxy in April, which have since been released as a delightful two-CD live album at brianwilson.com. The 20 or so songs in the evening included a brash and punky reading of “Do It Again,” an extremely effective “In My Room” and a delirious “Good Vibrations.” Evening started with a joke: Wilson once again singing the Barenaked Ladies’ ode to his years spent in bed, “Brian Wilson.”
Van Dyke Parks’ orchestral odyssey ran a colorful gamut with the “Good Vibrations” chorus forming bookends in his 25-minute suite. Neither serious nor 101 Strings-sappy, the work was at its strongest when it turned bright and blissed-out with the orchestra playfully jabbing from side to side. As a set-up for the evening, however, you couldn’t ask for more.