Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Brian Wilson - The Tote Bag

Last Friday Cindy and I and our friend Elaine went to Boston's Symphony Hall to hear the Boston Pops. Well, maybe more to hear their special guest, who used to be in this surf band. The guest was of course Brian Wilson, with Beach Boys alums Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin and a full band, in town to perform the group's 1966 album Pet Sounds. (The album was released in May of that year, making it both fifty years old AND ahead of its time. Sgt. Pepper's, the album it's most often compared to, wasn't released until June of 1967, a full year later.)

If you've seen Love and Mercy or know the Beach Boys' back story, you'd probably be wondering, like I was, if Brian was up to it - being the center of attention for a full evening, let alone being able to actually still sing. The orchestra wandered on, then the band, then, led by the stage manager, Brian himself, to a genuine hero's welcome by the crowd. Luckily there was no one behind me because I didn't sit down for the next hour.

The first set was Beach Boys' hits plus a few of Brian's solo recordings - everything but Pet Sounds - and Brian was engaged, introducing each song, sometimes funny but never ironic, much like his lyrics. He couldn't hit the high notes but did fine otherwise, and Al Jardine's son Matt added the falsetto that Brian lacked, sometimes taking over mid-line. The Beach Boys were already square when I started listening to music in the mid '60s, but 'In My Room' and 'Don't Worry Baby' were perfect singles then and were just as perfect in concert fifty years on. Blondie Chaplin came on for a few post-Pet Sounds tunes, 'Wild Honey' and 'Sail On Sailor,' and added some testosterone to balance Brian's romantic but chaste persona.

Set two was Pet Sounds, performed in its entirety - at least. With the full band of multiple guitarists, keyboardists, percussionists and singers, not to mention the full orchestra standing by, I bet every note on Pet Sounds was covered, even the theremin and car honks, and many were doubled. It was very nice, with some genuine highlights - Al Jardine's vocal on 'Sloop John B,' Brian and Al's call and response vocal on the tag of 'God Only Knows,' Nick Walusko's vintage Fender Jaguar on the tune 'Pet Sounds' - but it was more like a recital than a rock concert. Even the finale of the post-Pet Sounds single 'Good Vibrations' - one of the high points of the rock era - was a little too perfect to feel like rock'n'roll. But hey, I got to witness history, and I can only hope to perform as competently when I get to be Brian's age.

They let the orchestra go home, and Brian and the band came back on for an encore set of early Boys surf rock, with people twisting in the front rows. Fun, but still curiously harmless, like being at the taping of a PBS special. Then Love and Mercy, maybe his best solo song, given added poignancy by the movie's public airing of his private nightmare, and Brian was led offstage, band still playing. We happened to exit past the stage door, and saw Nick and some of the other band members greeting the crowd. Brian, we assumed, like Elvis, had left the building. But, unlike Elvis, Brian is still here to get the accolades he deserves. I don't call many people genius, but Brian is one of them. I dare anyone to write a song more romantic than 'Don't Talk, Put Your Head on My Shoulder,' more honest than 'In My Room,' or more heartbreaking than 'Caroline, No.' Long live Brian, and Al, and Pet Sounds. Elaine even bought the tote bag.