Brian Wilson and Friends is the latest live DVD/Blu-Ray (both come in the same case) from Brian Wilson. Recorded late last year to promote his new album No Pier Pressure, it features the band he will be touring with for the next few months — his standard touring band (the best band I’ve ever seen live) plus Al and Matt Jardine and Blondie Chaplin — along with Brian “Ike” Eichenberger who was briefly in Brian’s band last year but is now a member of the touring “Beach Boys”.
A live DVD from this band is always welcome, of course, but there’s a credit which strikes fear into the hearts of many: “produced and directed by Joe Thomas”. But that fear is, surprisingly, misplaced. While I won’t say there’s no autotune on here for certain, what I will say is that at no point do we get the robo-voice effect that wrecks much of the last two studio albums and the Beach Boys fiftieth anniversary album.
The vocal mix is much wetter than I would prefer, and there’s clearly been some touching up done in the studio, but a *lot* of the vocals are definitely as live — with missed words, swallowed syllables, sloshed sibilants and all. Errors are hidden with strategic doubling and a lot of reverb, rather than by whacking so much autotune on that everyone sounds like a robot. Fundamentally, what this DVD sounds like is what you’d get if you saw this band when Brian was on a very good night but the sound engineer was a little too reverb-happy, rather than a clinical mess.
(At least that’s my opinion after a handful of viewings. I don’t have the world’s greatest ears for studio effects, though. But if the 50th Anniversary Tour CD is a ten in over-autotuning, and No Pier Pressure is about a six, this would be at most a two or three).
The show opens with a gorgeous version of Our Prayer, mixed with every individual voice audible, and sounding lovely, before going straight into Heroes & Villains with the cantina section in place. Whoever’s singing the high harmony on the “dance Margarita” section does a wonderful camp vibrato on it, and the whole thing sounds great, although Brian swallows a couple of syllables. It’s amazing how adding Al Jardine to the harmony stack makes the band sound like the Beach Boys.
That’s even more true of Sloop John B, where Al and Brian duet (although Sloop is the first of a few songs where the video cuts to a long shot of Brian in a couple of places precisely when the timbre of his vocal changes and becomes more reverby, which makes the punch-ins rather obvious). But when you hear Al and Brian together, with no other voices, on “hoist up the John B sails”, for all that Brian’s voice has changed dramatically in the last fifty years, it still sounds like the Beach Boys.
Dance Dance Dance has never been a favourite of mine, but it does give Eichenberger a chance to shine on the choruses, and Probyn Gregory the first of several guitar solos.
Good Vibrations seems to be filmed to show the people who’ve made fun of Al for his guitar not being in the mix that he can play — lots of shots of his fingers as he plays the guitar motif in the verses. This sounds to me like it may have been edited from two performances — there’s a sudden change in the sound halfway through the first chorus that may just be a bit of sloppy mixing, but which may have been an edit. In general this seems to be one of the least “live” tracks, unless there really were multiple Al Jardines on stage at the same time. There’s also a bass voice doubling Brian on the chorus which doesn’t sound like anyone in the band. This shows up a few times, actually — normally Mike’s parts in the harmony stack have been taken by Scott Bennett in the shows I’ve seen, but it doesn’t sound like Scott (and he’s seen singing different parts). I don’t know if maybe Eichenberger (whose voice I don’t really know) can sing bass as well as falsetto, or if it’s someone else — possibly it could just be that whoever’s singing this part is raised in the mix compared to the normal vocal mixes for Brian’s shows, and I’m not used to hearing them sing bass.
This Beautiful Day from the new album features trumpeter Mark Isham, but also clearly has the studio vocal take, with multi-tracked autotuned Brians, used rather than a live one (the song’s really out of Brian’s current vocal range, so this is unsurprising). It’s a nice little song though.
Runaway Dancer, also from the new album, sounds more or less identical to the studio version, and again seems to have had a lot of tweaking. It features Sebu on lead vocals, as the studio version does. Not a highlight.
Sebu also takes lead on Don’t Worry Baby and does a very creditable job, although his style is a little melismatic for my personal taste. The track has also been very slightly rearranged, with a little keyboard figure I don’t think suits it, but it’s always a great song, and I can’t help but warm to Sebu when he does Mike Love-esque driving movements on the line “she makes me want to drive”.
At this point, the show becomes the early-70s Beach Boys, with Al Jardine (who had been absent from the stage for Sebu’s songs) returning and introducing Beach Boys Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, and longtime Beach Boys touring keyboardist Billy Hinsche.
We get a very good version of Marcella, although Brian’s still a little too polite a vocalist for this one, which might have been better sung by Chaplin, but the cascading, overlapping, vocal lines from the band are fantastic. Probyn also proves here that an often-made criticism of this band is false — people sometimes say that they’re a little too staid and can’t do rock. Probyn’s solo at the end shows that they *can* do loud rock solos (which is generally far, far, easier than the other stuff they pull off), they just know when it’s not appropriate.
Wild Honey features Chaplin on lead, and he forgets huge chunks of the lyric, just yelling random bits that he remembers along with non-lyrical mouth noises, while pulling eye-popping faces and looking like the even-more-raddled love-child of Keith Richards and Lou Reed. This makes it possibly the best thing on the DVD, and I’m looking forward hugely to seeing him touring with this band in September.
Sail On Sailor also features Chaplin on vocals, this time giving a much more restrained, quite beautiful, vocal performance. And with Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, and Billy Hinsche in the backing vocal stack, this sounds like the Beach Boys. This might be the best live version of Sail On Sailor I’ve heard.
Even Chaplin and Jardine can’t save the overblown yacht-rock that is Sail Away, though. This seems to be everyone else’s favourite song from the new album, but it does nothing for me.
Mark Isham then returns (and the other guests leave) for Half Moon Bay, the exotica-style instrumental from the new album, which allows the band to demonstrate their ability to play delicate, expressive, music beautifully. Something like this, which is all about the empty spaces, is much more difficult to get right than a stompy rock track like Marcella, but the band pull it off perfectly.
An instrumental take on Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) follows, with Isham playing the vocal melody on the trumpet. This sounds utterly lovely — Don’t Talk may be Brian’s very best melody as pure melody — but the song does rather miss something without its lyrics.
Nate Reuss comes on for Saturday Night, which sounds just like it does on the record (forgettable), before bringing Blondie and Ricky back on for a version of Hold On Dear Brother, their song from the Carl & The Passions (So Tough) album, which shows that Reuss can *really* sing — his performance is quite astonishing, as is Probyn Gregory’s. Probyn manages to reproduce Red Rhodes’ slide guitar solo from the record on a normal guitar, and the whole song is a lovely addition to the set, and must have been jaw-dropping live.
Reuss also sings lead on Darlin’, where he’s merely competent rather than astonishing. Following this, the DVD cuts away to two studio tracks with She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M Ward). On The Island is the track from the album but with a different lead vocal take, and with some but not all of the backing vocal parts stripped out, and works very well, but God Only Knows is a bit of a disaster — Deschanel sings it very nicely, and while Ward’s guitar is the only accompaniment it works well, but then a truly horrible clodhopping one-man-band style drum part comes in, and it wrecks it.
The DVD then returns to the live show for The Right Time. I still think the song itself is underwritten, but it works better as a live track than on the record, with the harmonies sounding lovely and Al Jardine sounding even better in his seventies than he did in his twenties, and the band sounding more organic than the sterile studio version.
Wouldn’t It Be Nice follows, with Al again on lead. He’s *either* double-tracked or being partially doubled by Matt Jardine (who sounds very similar to his dad) here, but sounds astonishing (Brian is *definitely* double-tracked on the middle eight). How Al Jardine can still sound so good at his age, I can’t imagine. And obviously the song itself is a masterpiece.
We then get a run-through of a few of the hits — Al singing lead again on Help Me Rhonda (performed in the studio arrangement, rather than the old touring band arrangement, which I think Brian’s band used to use, though maybe my memory’s playing tricks with me). Bob Lizik’s bass playing is particularly good here; very loose and springy-sounding, just right for this song.
All Summer Long follows, with Brian back on lead, and the show proper ends with an all-hands performance of Fun Fun Fun, with Brian sounding a little tired and missing a couple of words, but getting by on the energy of the track (and Al doubling him on the last couple of verses to keep him going). The studio version of Guess You Had To Be There plays over the credits, with an interview with Kacey Musgraves, and there are two bonus tracks (Pacific Coast Highway and Summer’s Gone) that really should have been included in the main feature.
Overall, this isn’t the best possible representation of this band — it’s a little too clean, a little too sterile, to get across just how good they really are — but it’s a lot better than we had any right to expect, both in choice of songs and in how (comparatively) little it’s been messed with in the studio. If you go and see this band live this summer, you’ll see something very like this (albeit without Reuss, Sebu, and Isham).
Brian Wilson: Keyboards and vocals
Al Jardine: Guitar and vocals
Paul von Mertens: Saxophone, flute, harmonica, mandolin
Probyn Gregory: Guitar, tannerin, banjo, trumpet, and vocals
Scott Bennett: Guitar, keyboards, and vocals
Darian Sahanaja: Keyboards, percussion, and vocals
Nelson Bragg: Percussion and vocals
Bob Lizik: Bass
Mike D’Amico: Drums and vocals
Matt Jardine: Vocals
Nick Walusko: Guitar and vocals
Brian Eichenberger: Guitar and vocals