Is The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson past his prime?

Walking into a damp, post-industrial yard in Birmingham under a blanket of grey sky was quite the opposite of what I had envisioned when attending a concert helmed by Brian Wilson, musician-auteur of California pop balladeers The Beach Boys. He was also accompanied by ex-Beach Boys, Al Jardine, Ricky Fataar, and Blondie Chaplin. While the 60s icons saw huge commercial success in their heyday, a boisterous, handsome-surfer-boy public image distracted significantly from the artistic credit they deserved. An overwhelming number of artistic decisions were made by Wilson – singer, writer, producer, composer, and director of the family band. On the bill, the 1966 album Pet Sounds, which he masterminded for the group, was to be performed in its entirety, from front to back. Its imbricating vocal harmonies that hung, god-like, above ethereal orchestras and reverberating their majestical sounds against L.A. studio walls cemented Wilson’s position amongst the musical legends of the 20th century, in constructing a complete mastery of the studio album.

This legend, however, is noticeably getting on. Witnessing an elderly Wilson hauled on with a zimmerframe and shoved into a seat at his white grand piano by two staff was a rather uncomfortable scene in the first moments of the gig, and forced me to consider whether Wilson even wanted to do this. The Beach Boys have been known as a legacy act since the mid-70s, appeasing the larger demographic of loose listeners who only appreciate the surfer singles. It would not be unreasonable, then, to suggest that the band as of late could be hopping onto the indie bandwagon which idolises the more innovating Beach Boys, especially hailing Wilson’s genius. Were my own obsessions causing pain for Wilson?

The first portion of the gig saw a series of danceable numbers, taking surf catalogue classics such as ‘Help Me Rhonda’ and ‘I Get Around’ as well as their R&B-inflexed singles such as ‘Wild Honey’ and ‘Darlin’

It was a notion that I grappled with during the gig and after, but much of that initial stress was alleviated as soon as the first chord of ‘California Girls’ sounded, the introduction luring me into the sunny, psychedelic world of utopian beaches from a far-flung land. After a dreamy 30 seconds of blissful beauty, and a surreal feeling of actually seeing Wilson in the flesh, the organ riff slid in seamlessly, and the boogieing began. The first portion of the gig saw a series of danceable numbers, taking surf catalogue classics such as ‘Help Me Rhonda’ and ‘I Get Around’ as well as their R&B-inflexed singles such as ‘Wild Honey’ and ‘Darlin’. The sun may have been shy that day, but warmth filled Digbeth Arena and its shuffling, smiling crowd.

Although Wilson’s spirit had been undisputedly raised now that he was on-stage, I still held onto an unsettling feeling that this was more an opportunity for a pay check than anything else. One consistency throughout his life, is that his good nature is preyed upon by manipulative people, including the Columbia record label, his fraudulent therapist, Dr Eugene Landy, and his own father. Occasionally some lines were sung and then left unfinished, Wilson himself looking vacant. I could not tell if this was a result of an aged voice, if he was feeling the effects of his permanent brain damage from drug abuse he suffered from in the 60s and 70s, or indeed if he didn’t feel like it. Thankfully this did not impede too much on the performance, as the overlapping nature of Beach Boys vocal harmonies allowed other members of the band to step in and pick it up.

I was so enraptured, I even let out a tear or two at ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Sloop John B’

After the pop numbers, a few twinkling notes strummed on a 12-string acoustic sent myself and the crowd into an ecstasy. ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, the first track of Pet Sounds was an incredible sign for what was to come in the next 39 minutes, of which were transcendental, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The sonic palette aptly reflected the studio album with its waves of vibration that wash over you like ebbs and flows of ocean waves, but the live dimension made songs even more three-dimensional than they sounded on wax. All songs were executed to paramount perfection, and totally immersive. I was so enraptured, I even let out a tear or two at ‘God Only Knows’, the universally heart-throbbing introspection of love, and even to ‘Sloop John B’, a song to which I would jump into my dad’s arms as a child during our Friday night discos. Nostalgia through music had never been more poignant.

Once Pet Sounds closed with the crushingly melancholic ‘Caroline, No’, a happier note had to uplift the mood. So none other than ‘Good Vibrations’ kicked in with its scraping cello bass rhythm underlying the whirring Theremin, with a few more surf numbers to follow. Of course, Wilson wanted to end on a more spiritual note, closing with a piano rendition of ‘Love and Mercy’. To say it was a stunning solo performance would be an understatement; every chord was struck perfectly, and he worked around his now rugged voice to retain the intense emotion of the original. To be honest, I still have not reached a conclusion on whether Wilson wanted to tour or others did, but what I can say with utmost clarity, is that I, and every in person in that audience who looked up at him in awe, experienced something that they will treasure for the rest of their life – something that we may never get the opportunity to ever seize upon again.

 

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