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Concert Review: Brian Wilson and Zombies Revive the Grand Chamber Pop of 1968 at Greek

The Beach Boys' "Friends" and Zombies' "Odessey and Oracle" were celebrated in a show that really was about friendship, and survival.

Concert Review: Brian Wilson, Zombies Grandly
Chris Willman

Even “teenage symphonies to God” reach their dotage. But if they’re lucky, or spectacularly good, they may join the company of less youthfully inclined symphonies and join some kind of canon that’ll outlive their creators. Fortunately, the Beach Boys’ peak late ’60s work and “Odessey and Oracle” have not outlived Brian Wilson and the Zombies, respectively, who’ve teamed up for a tour dubbed “Something Great from ’68,” focusing to a large extent on beloved albums from that particular year. Yes, it’s a 51st anniversary tour — because who wants to wait for another round number when pop’s great classicists are still around?

Under a full moon at the Greek in L.A. Thursday night, Wilson and the Zombies provided a study in current contrasts as much as nostalgic similarities. To watch Colin Blunstone sing at 74 is to blurt “Oh my God, how does he still do that,” follow this with a few spontaneous expletives, at least consider the idea that his voice might actually be better today than it was in his 20s, and wonder whether it’s at all possible that he had a portrait commissioned of his throat to sit and age in a closet somewhere. Yes, we do mean “The Larynx of Dorian Gray.”

And to watch Wilson perform at 77 is … well, it’s not that. But what it is is every bit as satisfying, maybe more so, when you’re seeing one of the 20th century’s great maestros, who’s survived great odds to get here, joining in as part of an large and inestimable ensemble or sometimes just being enveloped in their womb. Anyone who had a heart would have felt it melt Thursday night.

Anyone who didn’t could still have marveled at the gathering of mass virtuosity that went into the 21st century equivalent of a night at the opera that was the Wilson band’s performance. The members of the 10-piece Wilson orchestra, as it were, shift a little from tour to tour (most recently with the tragic passing just over a month ago of longtime guitarist Nicky Wonder, who died on the eve of the tour’s first night). But there are three marquee mainstays you can usually count on in recent years, all present and accounted for this time: Darian Sahanaja, the ex-Wondermint who’s been key in bringing young and proficient acolytes into the group; Blondie Chaplin, who joined the Beach Boys for a few years in a period in the ’70s when they were slightly more inclined toward being a rock band; and Al Jardine, the core Beach Boy who went with Wilson instead of Mike Love in the divorce. (Speaking of which: the tour that Love is out there perpetually doing as a counterpart to Wilson’s is awfully good, too, if not nearly as moving, and doesn’t require your disparagement. Just saying.)

The biggest hole that’s left by any surviving remnant that wants to recreate this music is the one created all too long ago by the death of Carl Wilson, one of rock’s sweetest voices. The Brian Wilson band fills it in triplicate, basically, which seems like just about the right amount of manpower needed. Sahanaja is one of these ringers, singing “Darlin'” so ably you yearn to hear an entire night of nothing but Darian-does-Carl covers. Another is a fresher addition to the ensemble: Matthew Jardine, Al’s son, good enough that he doesn’t need to be introduced as Al’s son; he is up to “God Only Knows,” introduced by his dad as Sir Paul’s favorite song, as it it weren’t everyone’s.

The other Carl ringer is no ringer at all: Blondie Chaplin doesn’t sound like the Wilson brothers’ tender Caruso any more than he looks like him, but trades that vocal purity for the perfect impurity of a mixture of R&B improv and pure rock ‘n’ roll swagger. If you’d have any inclination to complain that these concerts are too faithful, too slavish — which would be a weird complaint to have about music this arranged — Chaplin provides a three-song respite from all such note-for-note recreation. By far the nattiest dresser on stage with his yellow suit, pink shirt and lapel flower, Chaplin seemed at 68 fully the rock star he never quite became, peeling off guitar leads between his verses on “Feel Flows” and “Long Promised Road” that made you wish the Boys’ brief interest in being a more post-hippie-ish band circa 1971 had been pursued a little further. Chaplin, of course, was not taking over for anyone on the “oh, do I wail” standout “Sail On Sailor,” the one hit he did front for the group in ’73.

As for the man himself? Reports that he had turned into more of a ghost of himself on stage turn out to have been greatly exaggerated — or maybe he really is spending more time taking the lead vocals on this tour. (He gets about an equal amount of lead singing duty as Sahanaja, Chaplin and the two Jardines do, which is very much in the Beach Boys’ tradition, even if he sometimes trades parts on songs that once would have been his province alone.) Objectively speaking, there were moments when he was vocally right on, some where he was less than pitch perfect. So if your goal is to remember him exactly as he was in 1965, it’s good that you stay home and save the seat for someone with less stupid goals. If you’re there to celebrate someone who’s been dealt some tough hands in life but still has the urge to bring it — and who’s the most lovable, respectable and fragile contributor to the otherwise superhuman philharmonic assembled in his name — then this really was the place for you.

The audience at the Greek seemed an insiders’ crowd — less the “Let’s go hear ‘Fun Fun Fun'” crowd Love draws (although that was played at the end, and sung by Billy Idol, of all people) than the “deeper, the better” contingent. You could tell from the huge cheer Sahanja got when he was introduced as an additional keyboardist midway through the Zombies’ opening set: this was an audience that knows their Wilson enablers. Their faith was rewarded with about as great a cross-section of famous and obscure Beach Boys music as any audience of Brian’s has gotten in this lifetime. Car songs got short shrift (or shift), unless you’re going to consider “Don’t Worry Baby” a car song. Also downplayed was “Pet Sounds,” surely because the 2018 tour was billed as a farewell to full performances of that, and there are less overexposed choices to bust out the bass harmonica on, now.

So the album that was being officially celebrated was 1968’s “Friends,” one of those modest, post-“Smile”-trauma LPs that deservedly enjoys its own cult. Seven short numbers from that short album were pulled out, including the neglected title track, the tiki-revival-friendly instrumental “Diamond Head” (with Matthew Jardine rubbing palm fronds together as inaudible percussion), and “Busy Doin’ Nothin’,” which, in truthful deadpan, Wilson introduced as “a song about the directions to my house.”

But the show was very nearly a tribute to the “Surf’s Up” album of ’71, too, with the elder Jardine singing a number that’s almost never been performed live, “Looking’ at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song),” and the sublime “Feel Flows” (repopularized by Cameron Crowe on the “Almost Famous” soundtrack) working its way back in, not to mention the haunting title track (rescued from the aborted masterpiece “Smile”) and even more haunting “Till I Die.”

To hear Wilson singing an early ’70s song about knowing he’d feel adrift until the day of his passing, and knowing the forces he still wrestles with to this day, is the stuff of chills — and that he gives it to us anew now, going into those shadows instead of remaining just in the warmth of the sun, feels like an act of surpassing generosity. “Till I Die” is basically a choral anthem of liturgical-level anxiety, and it appeared as if that might signal an end to the full choir for the night, as the group then segued into the rather less churchy “Barbara Ann.” Idol came out to loan his own rebel yell to the teen heroine’s thwarted rebellion in “Fun, Fun, Fun.” (Knowing which Beach Boys would most welcome being messed around with on stage, Idol clowned around considerably with Jardine after a brief shoulder clasp with the man at center stage.)

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Chris Willman

And then, maybe as something special for the hometown crowd, or maybe because you can’t end a deeply emotional Brian Wilson concert with a lead vocal from Billy Idol, there was a bonus track to the concert that hasn’t otherwise occurred so far on the tour. The 10 fellow band members gathered close together around Wilson’s piano as he plunked and sang what may be the most quintessential song in his catalog, “In My Room,” a song that sees hope as well as forlornity in isolation. That early Beach Boys classic sees a boy’s bedroom as a womb to which he can safely return to escape the troubles of the outside world. On stage for this affecting finale, his group provided that shelter, almost literally in the final visual. As those who follow news accounts know, Wilson had to cancel the planned start of this tour because he was feeling “mentally insecure” and “struggling with stuff in my head”; the demeaning voices he’s spoken of hearing had returned perhaps. How stirring it is, then, to know that for at least an hour and a half every night on tour, these are the voices Wilson gets to hear — loving ones echoing back his own in supportive and glorious harmony.

The Zombies opened the show by playing a handful of their greatest hits, capped by “She’s Not There,” and then standing to bask in the applause. Was the set ending after just 20 minutes, those less in the know might have wondered? No, it was just a break to bring out an even bigger ensemble — including a couple more original members — to perform “Odessey and Oracle” in its entirety, with all the additional parts of that 1968 prog-pop landmark replicated down to the last Mellotron. Led by founding members Blunstone and Rod Argent, the Zombies have been playing much of that album in recent years anyway, to great acclaim, but certainly not to an extent that includes Chris White returning to the fold to sing his Side 2 antiwar song “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).”

Blunstone is not the only one in enduringly good shape. Argent becomes the star of the show when it’s time to recreate and build upon the solos that everyone over a certain age can play air-organ to, and he remains in good voice, too, as second vocal banana. With the focus on “Odessey” and a set time limited to an hour, this Zombies set does not end the way their recent headlining shows have, with “Hold Your Head Up” and “God Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to You,” the crowd pleasers from Argent’s ’70s side project band. They weren’t much missed, as the kind of crowd that cheers the arrival of certain sidemen is also going to be the crowd that wants to hear ’60s album tracks more than ’70s FM staples. No song got a warmer welcome than “This Will Be Our Year.” Fifty-one years later, the promise of a year-long jubilee still catches the heart, if just for an evening.