Brian Wilson’s voice is trashed; let’s get that out of the way from the top. That sweet, pure tenor is gone. But it doesn’t really matter. WC will explain.
Brian Wilson and Al Jardine, two of the original Beach Boys, are touring on the 50th anniversary (technically, now the 51st) of the release of “Pet Sounds,” the critics’ consensus as the best Beach Boys album. Backed by 10 to 11 musicians, Wilson, at the famous white baby grand piano, worked through the Beach Boys’ songbook, including, in the second set, the entire “Pet Sounds” album.
Brian Wilson has always been a fan of the “Wall of Sound,” the music production formula developed by American record producer Phil Spector at Gold Star Studios in the 1960s. Wilson has re-worked many of the vocals-dominated Beach Boys songs to create dense backgrounds of instrumentation, with almost all of the musicians singing harmony against a lead lyric. Spector built his layers of music by multiple dubbing in the studio; Wilson has done it live in concert and it added a lot of muscle to those great old songs.
The Beach Boys were brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and their friend Al Jardine. Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983 and Carl Wilson died of lung cancer in 1998. The Beach Boys, even prior to those losses, split into two groups: the Brian Wilson-fronted show WC saw Thursday night and the Mike Love-led Beach Boys, an oldies show. Oddly, they are all employees of Beach Brothers, the holding company.1
In their day, Brian Wilson and Mike Love had the widest vocal range. As Brian Wilson described it, Love “can go from bass to the E above middle C”, and Brian himself “can take the second D in the treble clef.” Brian’s range is gone; Mike Love doesn’t perform with him. The replacement on lead vocals comes from a surprising place: Al Jardine’s son. Matt Jardine did a very credible – sometimes uncanny – job covering the ranges that Brian Wilson has lost and Mike Love wasn’t present to carry.
There was a discordant note: Blondie Chaplin, one-time member of the Beach Boys and the lead singer on the Beach Boys’ “Sail On, Sailor” did two thrash guitar songs. They had nothing to do with the Beach Boys’s music or the mood, and weren’t even that well performed. They certainly had nothing to do with the music Brian Wilson wrote and performed. His third song, “Sail On, Sailor” was a little closer to Beach Boys music, but still a little over-amped.
The second set, following an intermission, was “Pet Sounds,” with the songs played in album order. It’s tougher than it sounds. “Per Sounds” famously has a huge array of instruments and sounds. Theremins, bicycle horns and bells, dogs barking, horns, flutes, weird percussion; it was all there, and very well done. And the band absolutely nailed “Sloop John B,” WC’s favorite Beach Boys song ever. For a 50-year old album, it has held up very well, and the sudden end of “Caroline, No,” the final track, as always, left the crowd feeling as if they’d fallen off a cliff.
In an extended encore, Brian Wilson rounded out the rest of the Beach Boys’ greatest hits list: “Good Vibrations,” “Fun Fun Fun,” “Barbara Ann,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Surfing USA” and more. The audience, as you can imagine, was rocking.
The show closed with a near-solo by Brian Wilson, a soft, regretful ballad, “Love and Mercy,” where his time-ravaged voice was perfect.
WC approached the concert with some worry. Brian Wilson is a damaged genius. Mental illness, drugs and physical disabilities have plagued him. He very nearly needs help walking on stage. Both of his brothers are dead and his very limited ability to compose new songs seems to haunt him. But he has surrounded himself with excellent musicians, a skilled music director in Von Mertens and a vision for recasting those old hits. And it all worked brilliantly
A great evening from a great set of artists and one of the great pop music composers in WC’s lifetime.
- WC has seen The Beach Boys once before, in a pretty amazing joint concert with Chicago. An hour of Beach Boys songs, an hour of Chicago songs, and a little over and hour of them on stage together, alternating each other’s songs. Mike Love can rock “Saturday in the Park.” Unhappily, the forum was the old Chicago Bulls basketball arena, and the acoustics truly sucked. ↩