(NB I wrote the first 3000 words or so of this on Wednesday, hence references to “last night” rather than “two nights ago”)
A little over fourteen years ago, I spent nearly a fortnight’s dole money on tickets to see Brian Wilson play two nights in London, performing the whole of Pet Sounds and thirty or so of his other songs, backed by a superb band. I thought to myself then “this will be my one and only chance to do this. I have to spend the money.” — I’d thought it would never happen.
Since then, I’ve seen Brian many times. I saw him six months later, in Manchester, performing Pet Sounds again and opening the set with Wonderful, which we never thought would happen. I saw him two years after that, in Liverpool and Manchester, performing a completed version of Smile, which we never thought would happen. (I’ll skip over 2006, when I *would* have seen him but had train problems…) In 2007 I saw him premiere a whole new song cycle, That Lucky Old Sun, that stood up with his very best work, which we never thought would happen. In 2008 I saw a ropey performance we’ll skip over, and I was already getting a bit complacent, expecting miracles every time. I was disappointed in 2011 when he performed a whole album of Gershwin covers, when nine years earlier I’d never have believed it was possible.
But then in 2012 — the Beach Boys reunited, which we never thought would happen. Three shows, each better than the last. And two years ago, a great festival show, with Al and Matt Jardine having joined the band.
And now, in 2016, we have what has been billed as Brian’s last ever European tour. The longest tour he’s done in decades, maybe ever. And the last time he will ever perform Pet Sounds live, fifty years after its release, featuring not only Al Jardine, but also Blondie Chaplin, who was a member of the Beach Boys in the early 70s and sang on a few of their best albums.
In fact, this tour is something of a mini-reunion of the early-70s Beach Boys. Not only do we have three of the band members, but on the UK leg Billy Hinsche is subbing for Darian Sahanaja (Brian’s regular keyboard player, who had a prior commitment for these dates, and will be rejoining the band in a couple of weeks). Darian’s missed — he’s an immense talent — but Hinsche is about as good a replacement as one could hope for. He was (after his brief period as a pop star in his own right with Dino, Desi, and Billy) a touring keyboardist with the Beach Boys from the early 70s through 1996, playing and singing on many of their classic 70s albums, and he is also part of the band’s extended family — his sister was Carl Wilson’s first wife.
So most of the core surviving members of the 70s live band (often considered the best version of the Beach Boys ever at playing their more rock-oriented material) have joined a band which was already the best band I’d ever heard in my life. If this is Brian’s last European tour, he was planning on making it special.
I’d bought one of the special soundcheck tickets (not one of the meet & greet ones they were also selling — “just” the soundcheck) so got to the venue early enough to speak to a few of the band members when they were heading in. I knew they’d been playing “Honkin’ Down The Highway” at a few US gigs, and it’s one of my favourites, so I asked Paul Mertens, the band’s musical director, if there was any chance of it that night, and he replied “…maybe…”
(Apparently several other people had been asking for that one, too — The Beach Boys Love You is an album that’s getting more and more respect over the years…)
And the soundcheck itself was absolutely fascinating. One of the rumours that one often hears is that Brian is in some way not engaged with the band, or not paying attention, but it was very, very clear that while he wasn’t running the soundcheck (it’s not his job to be, that’s Mertens’ role), he knew what he wanted and how to get it.
It was particularly funny to watch him interact with Al Jardine. The two have known each other since they were in school, and acted almost like an old married couple. During the soundcheck of both “Don’t Worry Baby” and “I Get Around”, Jardine noticed that some of the harmony parts weren’t being sung by as many people as others, and worked with the band to reassign the parts. At one point, as Jardine was going over a part with Nelson Bragg, Brian said to him, exasperated, “He *knows* the part — we’ve been doing this for eighteen years!” to which Jardine replied “But he’s not been singing *this* part for eighteen years!”
What astonished me in this was the way that the band members were instantly able to adapt to their new harmony parts. Yes, they know the songs and the parts, but even so it was a reminder of *how good* this band are.
But the best moment in the soundcheck came when they did “Honkin’ Down The Highway”, the song I’d requested earlier — and Mertens picked me out in the audience (there were only a couple of dozen of us at the soundcheck) and pointed and mouthed “did you like it?”, so I’m going to believe, despite any other evidence, that it was all because of me they added the song (giving it its first ever UK live performance by any of the Beach Boys).
But then something even better happened. Al got into a conversation with Mike d’Amico, the drummer, about how many bars the intro was, and Brian suddenly said “I have an idea! What’s that part you’re playing?” and arranged a new intro for the song. It wasn’t a *major* change — just having the song start with baritone sax and fuzz-synth playing the bass riff, rather than having the drums alone — but it was fantastic to see the greatest arranger of his generation coming up with a new part for one of my favourite songs.
I came out of the soundcheck grinning, and after grabbing a late lunch went and chatted with the crowd in and outside the pub next door. Probyn Gregory (guitar, trumpet, french horn, tannerin, vocals, half a dozen other instruments, and world’s nicest man) and Nelson Bragg (percussion, vocals, enthusiasm, great hair, and also right up there in the nice person rankings) from the band came out and chatted to us for a while, which is always great — I’m a big fan of both men’s work outside this band, as well — but it’s also always great at Brian shows (and to a lesser extent at Mike & Bruce ones) to meet up with old friends and make some new ones. I saw people I’ve known for twenty years, people I’ve known online but never met before, and a few new and interesting people (when I went to my first Brian show, I was the youngest person there. Now I’m a good decade older than some of them. The younger, hipper, fans seem to be massive fans of Love You, incidentally…).
For many of the people there, this would be the last chance they’d get to see Brian (I’m going to one more show, in Liverpool next week), and so it was a very emotional event. I got hugged by three different people, which is I suspect a record for me in one day, or even in one month (I live a very sheltered life).
But after nearly 1300 words you’re probably wondering… how was the show?
It was, of course, fantastic.
A few general points about the show, before I go into detail about the individual songs:
Brian was more on form than I’ve ever seen him. His voice has got noticeably frailer in the last few years (not worse — just aging), and he’s relying more on the other vocalists than he used to, but he still took about two thirds of the leads, and did a good job. Some have been saying “Brian should retire” and so on in their reviews. No. He’ll never be a great singer again like he was in the 60s and 70s — though he’s still very, very strong as a harmony singer, actually — but he’s as good as he ever has been since he started touring solo in the late 90s, and he’s more enthusiastic than I’ve ever seen him. Either he’s so bad he should never have started touring in the first place, or he should carry on as long as he wants to — and I think it should be obvious by now which side of that I come down on.
The band were stellar. I’d worried that the lack of Darian might be a problem — and he’s missed, no question — but even with that lack they might have been the best I’ve ever seen them. I’ve always said that this band are, unreservedly, the best live band I’ve ever seen, but if I’ve had one minor criticism it’s that their playing has been at times a *tiny* bit too polite for the surf songs — a little restrained, rather than going completely for the teenage testosterone of the original records. Which has been fine for me — while I’m as happy as anyone to sing along with Fun Fun Fun or Surfin’ USA, those songs aren’t what I’m there for, and this band can do awe-inspiring beauty as well as anyone. This time, though, the band *ROCKED* on those songs and the other uptempo ones.
And this band sounded more like the Beach Boys than any other lineup of any of the touring acts I’ve heard. Al Jardine’s vocals were the most important element in the band’s harmony stack, and he’s also the member of the classic lineup whose voice has held up the best. Blondie Chaplin (although he only performed for three songs plus the encore numbers) always had a perfect Beach Boys voice even though he grew up in South Africa rather than Hawthorne, and he too sounds as great as ever (and brings a little rock and roll cool to the proceedings, looking as he does like someone had spliced together the most weathered parts of Keith Richards, Lou Reed, and Arthur Lee into one skinny, craggy, sunglasses-wearing, avatar of pure rock and roll — this is a man who toured with the Rolling Stones for decades, and who I’ve heard finally left the band because Keith Richards couldn’t keep up with him). And Matt Jardine has somehow managed to inherit his dad’s voice *and* the voice of 1965-era Brian Wilson. The harmonies from Brian, Al, Matt, and sometimes Blondie (and possibly Billy, who was often in the harmonies on the 70s records) just *were* the Beach Boys’ voices in a way no other band has been.
Honestly, the only thing I could say that could come *close* to a criticism of the show overall is that it was “only” forty songs — fourteen years ago, the last time they played Pet Sounds at this venue, they played
fifty-two (EDIT — forty-five. No idea where I got fifty-two from), and so totally understandably some favourites of mine that were in the setlist in 2002 (Busy Doin’ Nothin’, The Night Was So Young, Wonderful, Surf’s Up, Cabinessence, Friends, Til I Die) weren’t played this time. I’m a greedy man, and I wanted those as well. But that’s the ultimate in minor quibbles — almost everything played last night was either a massive hit, a classic of songwriting, or often both, and no-one could say forty songs isn’t a fair number.
So the individual songs then…If I don’t note otherwise, Brian took the lead and Matt Jardine any falsetto parts:
The band opened with Our Prayer, the a capella introduction to Smile. It’s a brave choice for an opener, as it relies on everyone singing very precise parts (for those who don’t know the song, it’s a Bach pastiche with all that that implies) and normally it takes a song or two for the sound person to iron out any bugs, which could easily lead to people not being able to stay in tune with others. In this case, though, it sounded sublime.
Heroes & Villains — the full Smile arrangement. As good as it always is. Matt Jardine took all the high parts, and Nicky Wonder (lead guitarist) “you’re under arrest!”
California Girls got the expected rapturous response. Al said “Manchester girls!” at the end.
Dance Dance Dance was, strangely enough, a highlight even though it’s not a song I’ve ever particularly liked. This was the first sign that the band would really be energetic on these uptempo songs, and Probyn played a fantastically aggressive version of the guitar solo.
I Get Around was again hugely well-received.
At this point Al took the lead for two car songs. Shut Down, his first lead, is an odd choice (it’s from the only Beach Boys album he wasn’t on), but he did a great job on it — marred slightly by the backing vocals being mixed so low they were almost inaudible (the only real sound problem noticeable from the audience during the show). Little Deuce Coupe followed and was, again, an excellent performance, although I’ve never been a massive fan of either of those songs.
Little Honda had Brian back on lead, and again was done far more energetically than I’d expected.
Brian introduced Girl Don’t Tell Me by saying “this one was inspired by John Lennon and… who’s that guy out of the Rolling Stones? Not Mick Jagger… Keith Richards.”
There seemed to be a tiny bit of confusion between Brian and Matt here — Brian sang the first two lines of each verse, and all of the chorus with Matt singing the third verse line, but they seemed unsure who was taking the fourth verse line — in the first verse, Brian sang it, in the second, no-one did, and in the final verse Matt did. Still nice to hear this one, though.
Brian then said “we’re going to slow it down…down… down… down“, with each “down” slower and deeper than the other, before In My Room, which was just utterly beautiful. One of my favourite songs ever, and hearing Brian, Al, and Matt harmonising brought tears to my eyes. It was followed by the other famous 6/8 arpeggio close harmony ballad, Surfer Girl.
Matt Jardine then came to the front of the stage for Don’t Worry Baby and Al introduced him saying “he used to sing with us, for a long time, in the Beach Boys, back when times were good, but now he’s wisely chosen to be in the Brian Wilson band instead”. Matt took the lead and was just absolutely beautiful, even though he obviously had some problems with his in-ear monitor (he spent the first couple of lines with his hand to his ear, and then just pulled it out). It’s a hard song to sing *anyway* — with no monitor I’d be amazed at anyone even doing it on key, but he sounded lovely. (And Nelson took the bass “now don’t/now don’t you wor-ry ba-by” part, an important part of the harmony which had never really been audible on earlier tours when someone else sang it, but which made a big difference this time).
After that, Brian introduced Wake The World by saying “you’ll love the lyrics to this one”, to which Al respnded “that’s because we wrote them!”
Al took the lead, with Matt assisting, and my god but this was beautiful. I’ve always thought this was one of the great overlooked Beach Boys songs, and just hearing this would have been enough for me.
Add Some Music followed, a song I’ve never liked, but I accept I’m in a tiny minority there and it’s a favourite of many fans.
And then, the UK live premiere of Honkin’ Down The Highway. Baritone sax, synth set on fart sounds, a great melody, silly lyrics, and an Al Jardine vocal. What more could you want? Heaven.
Do It Again followed, with Al doubling Brian on the lead.
One Kind of Love was the one song from Brian’s album from last year, No Pier Pressure, that they played. Unfortunately, even though this is the best song on the album by quite some way, it didn’t quite work live — Brian’s phrasing was a bit off (I think because he needed more breaths than the song really allows for) and it’s a song that requires very precise phrasing. Not a car crash or anything, just… not so good.
And then Blondie was invited out on to the stage. Wild Honey was the first of three songs on which he took lead, and was a wild cascade of psych-funk excitement, with Probyn’s tannerin screaming, jazzy flute from Mertens (at first, and a sax solo later), and fantastic percussion flurries from Bragg and d’Amico, and Chaplin singing astonishingly soulfully. Funky Pretty followed, in the 70s live arrangement, with Blondie taking the astrological-gibberish verses and Brian singing the place-name-listing-gibberish middle eight. And to finish the first set off, we had Sail On Sailor, started by Blondie’s crunchy guitar (sounding for all the world like the intro to “It’s So Hard” by John Lennon).
All three were utterly unlike the normal “Brian Wilson band” performance — hard blues-rock, funk, and psychedelia, rather than gentle wistfulness — but this band, it turns out, can do that and do it wonderfully.
After the interval, the performance of Pet Sounds started with much less fanfare than the massive hype that Jeff Foskett used to give it when he was onstage MC. Instead, Brian just announced that they were going to do “the whole album!”, before introducing Matt Jardine — “he’s a great, great, singer, and a good friend of ours. And he’s handsome… and he’s young… and he’s happy… he’s all the things I wish I was!”
Matt Jardine sang a good chunk of most songs in the Pet Sounds set, to the point that some have described it as “Matt Jardine Presents Pet Sounds“, but one of the strengths of Brian’s arrangements has always been their use of different voices, so for me at least this was a good thing.
Wouldn’t It Be Nice had Matt take the lead on the verses, while Brian took the middle eight. An obvious pop classic, though it’s a shame that Al didn’t take the lead here, as he did on the Beach Boys reunion tour, as his vocals have been a bit underused.
On You Still Believe In Me the entire audience sang along quietly with the wordless falsetto introduction, creating a wonderful resonating sound that had to be heard to be believed. Brian sang the first two lines of each verse, while Matt took the rest. Just a beautiful performance of a beautiful song.
That’s Not Me had Brian take the whole lead vocal, apart from the leaps into falsetto for “you needed my love and I know that I left at the wrong time” and “I’m glad I went now I’m that much more sure that we’re ready”
Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) is one of my very favourite songs, but it had never worked all that well on the three previous Pet Sounds shows I’d seen. This was different, though — the combination of tremelo’d guitar, Gary Griffin’s vibraphone playing, flute and organ was perfectly balanced. Matt Jardine sang the verses and the word “heartbeat” in a wonderful approximation of Brian’s old falsetto, while Brian sang the choruses in his newer, more aged, voice, giving it a calm gentle authority that made the lines sound like the only way the world could possibly be. The phrasing sounded more like Sinatra or Nat Cole than the Beach Boys, in an entirely good way. Just glorious.
I’m Waiting For The Day was a solo lead, apart from the falsetto “he hurt you then but that’s all gone”. The highlight here, as so often, was just watching Nelson Bragg and Mike d’Amico smashing their drums in unison.
Let’s Go Away For A While was beautiful. Here Probyn came up to the front and doubled on trumpet and keyboards (playing the string pad while Hinsche played the organ part), Gary Griffin played the vibraphone, and Matt Jardine took the guitar melody (which surprised me, as I’d assumed his guitar was largely a prop, given that he’s there for his voice).
Sloop John B was, of course, an audience singalong. Al Jardine sang lead on the first verse, with Wilson and Matt Jardine joining him for the chorus, Wilson taking the second (Mike Love) verse, and Al taking the third. Al sounded fantastic — his vocals were the absolute highlight of the show — and changed the last line to “this is the *best* trip I’ve ever been on”
God Only Knows was “God Only Knows”. Nothing more need be said. Brian took lead, of course.
I Know There’s An Answer had Brian take the lead on the first line, Al on the rest of the verse, and the two of them doubled on the chorus. Al also played the banjo on this one, and got to take the spotlight for the banjo-and-bass-harmonica break.
Here Today was another solo Brian lead — this one’s moved comfortably into his range even as it’s moved out of its original singer Mike Love’s as they’ve both deepened (when Love’s band does this one live, Bruce Johnston takes the two higher lines of the bridge). As always with this one, the instrumental break, with Bob Lizik’s throbbing bass, was the highlight.
I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times is the song that made me a fan, and I can’t even begin to talk about this one rationally. Just beautiful. Brian took the lead apart from the “they say I got brains but they ain’t doing me no good” falsetto, but what really overwhelmed me was the chorus — Brian singing “sometimes I feel very sad”, the massed backing vocals singing “Oh quando sere? Un dia sere”, Al singing “can’t find the right thing to put my heart and soul into”… it was just spectacular.
Pet Sounds featured Nicky Wonder doing his normal spectacular job of the lead guitar part, Blondie Chaplin on tambourine and interpretive dancing, and the extended drum/percussion battle they always do when they play this one live, with Bragg and d’Amico getting a chance to show off their skills. This is one that works far better live than on the record.
And to finish off the Pet Sounds set we had Caroline, No. Once again, Brian broke the phrasing up, and once again his older, frailer, voice actually worked to the song’s advantage. Matt Jardine took the “break my heart” section, but the rest was Brian solo, and quite, quite beautiful.
After a standing ovation (with Brian walking off stage before the instruments had finished playing, as soon as his last vocal line was complete), we had Good Vibrations, with Matt Jardine singing the parts Brian had sung on the record while Brian sang the rest of the lead, although the crowd almost drowned him out. There was a little more of the spookiness and throbbing urgency to the chorus than previous Brian Wilson Band performances, but they still managed to convey the beauty of the song.
The whole band, with Blondie on stage, then ran through All Summer Long, Help Me Rhonda, Barbara Ann, Surfin’ USA and Fun Fun Fun in quick succession. As I’ve said before, they were better at the surf-rock stuff than they had been in the past, but there’s still not much to say about any of these that hasn’t been said. You know how Surfin’ USA sounds. (Though it was great to hear Al take the lead on Rhonda, of course). One thing I missed was the addition of a little snatch of “Rhapsody in Blue” which they used to do at the end of Fun Fun Fun.
And then, finally, Love and Mercy. For the most part just Brian singing, with Hinsche and Griffin on keyboard and vibraphone, and an absolutely lovely performance. As he sometimes does with this one when he’s very enthused by the material, Brian changed the words around, ad-libbing a bit — “sometimes it really scares me”, “I was watching some of the people there/Some people looking like they’re really lonely, it’s just not fair”. And the song and show ended with Griffin playing a snatch of the intro to “You Still Believe In Me”.
If you get a chance to see this show, *do*. Fourteen years ago, I thought it would be my last ever chance to see Brian Wilson. This tour is being advertised as just that. Maybe he’ll surprise us all yet again and do another fourteen years, and I’ll be writing in my fifties about going to see an eighty-nine-year-old Brian Wilson and being the oldest one in the audience, but I wouldn’t take that risk. Go and see this — I’ll be in Liverpool on Tuesday to see it all again.
The Brian Wilson band on the UK leg of this tour are:
Brian Wilson (vocals)
Al Jardine (vocals, guitar, banjo)
Blondie Chaplin (vocals, guitar)
Matt Jardine (vocals, hand percussion, guitar)
Paul Mertens (saxophone, flute, harmonica, bass harmonica, vocals, musical director)
Nick “Nicky Wonder” Walusko (guitar, vocals)
Probyn Gregory (guitar, trumpet, French horn, tannerin, keyboards, vocals, and probably some other instruments I missed)
Mike d’Amico (drums, vocals)
Nelson Bragg (percussion, vocals)
Gary Griffin (keyboards, vibraphone, vocals)
Billy Hinsche (keyboards, vocals)
Bob Lizik (bass)
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