The Civic; Auckland
Saturday, March 26
I didn’t get to see Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds show – but I’m pleased to be able to offer this review of the show and ruminations on Brian and the songs by special guest reviewer, Jesse Mulligan.
What can you possibly expect when you go to a concert where the lead singer was 20 years past his prime even 30 years ago when you first heard his songs? Next month is the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds, the album which changed popular music in ways I acknowledge without truly understanding. All I understand is the music’s effect on me, a Hamilton 12-year-old wondering what to do with all these surplus feelings and finding in the songs of Brian Wilson some sort of cathartic release, or if not release maybe a deeper well of emotion to pour my own generic pre-adolescent angst.
The songs, at least the ones on my album The Very Best of The Beach Boys, didn’t cover subjects of any real nuance or complexity. But tracks In My Room, Don’t Worry Baby, God Only Knows all communicated an intensity that transcended the lyrics. It was the subject matter for sure, and the instrumentation, but mostly the voices – high, pure, choral and unmistakably The Beach Boys.
I read as little as possible about the show before I saw it, and only knew what I’d seen on the blurb – that in the first half Brian Wilson and his band (including, promisingly, one of the original Beach Boys, Al Jardine) would perform Pet Sounds in its entirety, and in the second half they’d perform his other greatest hits. As it happened even this was wrong – the greatest hits came in the first half, starting with the incredible a capella harmonies that open the Smile album, then into Heroes and Villains and back to Fun Fun Fun and California Girls then onwards through the sixties and, for a few moments, the seventies.
Brian’s voice was not great. It sounded like him but only just, and the high notes were difficult or missing. At times he sort of rapped like a drunk, elderly Brian Wilson fan doing karaoke for the first time. Other times he’d get a song which was right in his current range and life was good again.
More troubling was his physical and mental performance. Throughout the concert he sat at a white piano which looked good though wasn’t often used – this is the guy who wrote Surfin Safari, not Imagine – but did a good job of masking some of the awkward body language. Without anything to do with his hands Brian just hung his arms limply by his sides and jiggled a bit, like somebody doing the Riverdance from a wheelchair. It was worse when he did use his arms – miming an oversize steering wheel during I Get Around and pointing to his imaginary “new place where the kids are hip”.
As the concert’s front man his timing was off, and he seemed to leave key parts out of his sparing between-song commentary. At the finale of Pet Sounds the audience began to get to their feet to applaud but Brian was already moving on to the next part of the concert: “Now we’re going to do Good Vibrations”.
The show seemed to be a struggle of endurance for him – at the halftime break and again at the pre-encore he got up and walked off stage before the song was over – his singing parts were done and he wouldn’t wait the 20-30 seconds for the song to finish before leaving. He was met in the wings by an older roadie who seemed to almost physically support him off the side of the stage.
That stuff all comes with age of course, but then right next to him was Al Jardine, looking like a cross between Ray Columbus and Richie Cunningham, playing his guitar with some energy and showmanship. I know the songs pretty well but I’m shaky on the Beach Boys’ biographical history – everybody knows Brian is the main man, but where did Al fit in apart from one of the harmonizing voices? There had been a court case over the Beach Boys name I seemed to remember – had he and Brian previously fallen out? Were they touring together now only for cynical financial reasons?
I watched them both closely for signs of trouble and saw, not tension exactly but no meeting of minds. Al was fit and articulate, Brian was your dad just before you decide to put him in a rest home. Sometimes Brian would half introduce a song and Al would try and throw in some supplementary context just before the music kicked in – though it never looked like one upmanship, more like the apologetic well-meaningness of somebody correcting your tip at a restaurant.
When the band first walked onstage, Al acknowledged our applause with an embarrassed sort of half wave – “I know most of you aren’t here to see me, but some of you know what I’ve contributed to this music and to you I say thank you”. But early in the concert it became clear how important he would become – his voice still sounded like the voice of a Beach Boy, so when Brian struggled we thought “come on Al, help him out”. But Al seemed like he was being careful – only singing in the agreed places, hovering out of the spotlight, not rubbing his lucid mobility in the face of the sometimes catatonic band leader sitting next to him.
There was somebody else, too, making Brian look even stiller. Blondie Chaplin, described on the website as a “long time Beach Boys member” was introduced onto stage by Brian towards the end of the first half – though I’m 90 per cent sure Brian forgot to say his name. “Blondie was a member of The Rolling Stones, he’s the real deal” said the saxophone player during a belated introduction of each of the band members, two hours after the show began.
Blondie moved like Jagger and looked like a black Lou Reed. He played guitar and tambourine, and sang a couple of Brian’s more obscure numbers from the 1970s. Was Blondie wasted or is he just like that? Wandering around stage like he owned it, crouching down to poke his tongue out at the front row during guitar solos – even on the tambourine you couldn’t take your eyes off him, as he beat the instrument against his backside and strutted. At one point he played a guitar solo to the drummer and Al wandered over to play along with him, but Blondie turned his back on him and continued to play so Al wandered back. He had star quality but he didn’t seem to respect the men we’d come out to see – once he patted Brian’s back on the way past but Brian showed no signs of responding. Was it Brian’s decision or Blondie’s that he would only come on for certain songs? Maybe it was Al’s? Whatever, we were prepared to put up with half-century old politics between band members, but who was this guy to out-awkward the awkwardness?
With Blondie that made 12 musicians onstage, and I’ve left it too long to tell you that the music they created was sublime. Each song was an almost perfect recreation of the studio version we knew, performed by a mix of musicians, a couple of whom could have been born in the Kokomo era, but most who looked old enough to have been there. I’m not musically literate enough to recognize the individual components of a great Beach Boys song, but seeing a dozen people working in unison to create the different percussive textures and vocal orchestrations was an incredible experience. Even a comparatively simple song like I Get Around had surprises – the fast, deliberate handclap that gets you out of the verse and into the chorus, for example – and watching the percussionist on other tracks hurry between bongo and cymbals and weird-raspy-broom-sweep-thing brought me deeper into the songs I already loved.
And Brian’s voice didn’t matter much. His leads weren’t great but he got vocal breaks both within songs and at times for sets of several minutes when somebody else took over. Early on, Al Jardine played a medley of some of his own compositions, though they weren’t well recognised by the crowd. Still, we all appreciated giving Brian some recovery time – Brian included, you have to assume.
The best song had bits of Brian, bits of Al and a back up chorus of all the men on stage. One of them stood out in particular – a younger guy in a blue shirt, right up the back who, despite being in shadow, took a lead on the falsetto parts which really make those early songs. I began to look forward to his cameos and often, just as one of the leads started to falter, he would lean in and sing like 1966. Where did they find him?
The banter continued, such that it was. Brian, who must have thousands of stories to tell about how these songs were created and what they mean to him, instead opted for bare introductions – “this is a song without any singing in it” about Let’s Go Away For A While and then “here is ANOTHER song without any singing in it” about Pet Sounds’ title track.
Audience members hoping for colour commentary were disappointed – “this one’s a ballad” said Brian at one point. “A power ballad,” added Al. “It’s a rock ballad” Brian decided. “A rock ballad,” considered Al, “sure”. Then they played In My Room, which I’m not ashamed to say is one of my absolute favourites.
“This might be the best song I’ve ever written” said Brian at one point, to introduce God Only Knows, but even then you got the feeling he was just reciting the popular opinion rather than delivering any insight. Well, it is a great song. And last night it was perfect.
“Matt, are you gonna come down here?” asked Brian suddenly, mid way through the first half. “Al’s son, Matt Jardine everybody”.
And down to the front of the stage walked that falsetto singer in the blue shirt, with almost zero showmanship but with a clear pride in being there. He was Al’s son!
He sang Don’t Worry Baby, a truly beautiful song, and he nailed it. The moment created something new – original Beach Boy Al Jardine harmonizing with his own voice from the 1960s. It was almost the perfect moment – a song we loved, sung in the presence of its creator, by the man who was there with him, and a reincarnation of his original voice.
Al’s presence grew a little after that, particularly when he and his son featured. He sang the lead on the wonderful Sloop John B and totally owned it – I looked it up afterwards and he’d been the one to convince Brian to record that song, originally by the Kingston Trio. Brian arranged it for the album with his usual genius, and Al had expected to sing on the recorded version, but Brian had other plans and sang it himself. What complex emotions were at play now as Al, 50 years later, sang it for Brian’s crowd and got one of the biggest ovations of the night?
After Pet Sounds, they all came back on for an encore. “The dancefloor is open,” said Al, and we got to our feet. They played a mop-up set of the remaining big numbers, and the audience danced, clapped and sang with them.
And do you know what was the best song of the whole night? Only fucking Help Me Rhonda – a song that had always seemed like earworm bait to me, an advertising jingle you sat through on the way to something more beautiful. But Al, the original vocalist on the track, stepped up and attacked it with an unselfconscious enthusiasm we’d only seen glimpses off all night. It helped that the song was upbeat – so we all sang along too – but there was something special going on, his voice for once sounding exactly like it did 50 years ago, while eleven men pitched in on the backing vocals, the guitarist played that surfy little riff and, at the end of the big chorus Matt Jardine leant into the microphone and sang that impossibly high “HELP ME RHONDA YEAH” before his dad took over for “get her outta my heart”.
And as the audience bounced up and down and the band sang their hearts out, and Blondie hit his bum with the tambourine and father and son recreated one of the most iconic pop music sounds of all time, the auteur Brian Wilson sat still at his white piano, with his arms by his side, though at least he waited for the end of the song before standing up, bowing and walking off stage for a final time to the other old man waiting for him in the wings.
Jesse Mulligan is a comedian, copywriter, MC and TV & Radio Host. He’s a keen food blogger and is the host of Afternoons on Radio NZ National, 1-4pm weekdays. He recently wrote a wonderful tribute for Garry Shandling for The Spinoff.