While Imagination was not especially successful, either commercially or critically, it did mark a new point in Brian Wilson’s solo career. Before 1998, Wilson had always relied on the Beach Boys to be his live “messengers” (as Dennis Wilson had famously put it) – even his first solo album had been promoted by Wilson doing odd guest spots at Beach Boys shows. Now, however, with the Beach Boys basically split, Wilson had to work on a proper solo career, and that meant live performances.
While Wilson had, of course, toured with the Beach Boys on occasion, and had even performed consistently with them from 1976 through to the early 1980s, he hadn’t toured regularly since the death of his brother Dennis, and had only performed a handful of solo shows, so a band had to be formed for the Imagination tour. As the core of the band, four members of the Los Angeles-based powerpop band Wondermints were chosen – keyboardist Darian Sahanaja, percussionist Mike d’Amico, guitarist Nick “Nicky Wonder” Walusko, and multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory. To them were added several Chicago-based musicians who had worked with Joe Thomas – keyboard player Scott Bennett, vocalist Taylor Mills, Styx drummer Todd Sucherman (replaced after the initial tour by Jim Hines, who plays on this album), bass player Bob Lizik, saxophone and woodwind player Paul von Mertens – along with Thomas himself on keyboards and Steve Dahl miming theremin while Gregory played. Jeffrey Foskett, who had played with the Beach Boys throughout the 1980s, also joined the band, playing guitar but also covering the falsetto vocals.
Tensions within this early line-up surfaced even before the first tour, though, as Sahanaja and Thomas clashed over the arrangements. According to Sahanaja, Thomas wanted to create new arrangements of the classic Beach Boys songs to make them more AOR – Sahanaja described Thomas’ arrangement of “Caroline, No” as a “sexy, Sade kind of thing” – and Sahanaja eventually put his foot down and insisted that the arrangements stick close to Wilson’s arrangements. Sahanaja became the musical director [FOOTNOTE von Mertens later took over this role.], Thomas left the tour after the first leg (as did Dahl and Sucherman, although Sucherman would play with Wilson on occasion again), and the band settled into what would be to the latter decades of Wilson’s career as the Beach Boys and Wrecking Crew had been for the early ones.
While the band has seen occasional line-up changes, and band members sitting out occasional tours due to other commitments, it has remained remarkably stable, and Sahanaja, Walusko, Gregory, d’Amico, von Mertens, and Lizik remain members of the band [FOOTNOTE Sahanaja is not on Wilson’s current (Summer 2016) tour, but my understanding is that he will return in future.], while Foskett only left in 2014 and Bennett in 2016.
And this band, along with the other musicians who occasionally substituted for or augmented them, became quite possibly the best live band in the world. Their attention to detail combined with their multi-instrumental and singing abilities meant that for the first time songs like “Let’s Go Away For A While” or “Til I Die” could be performed live, in arrangements that were identical to the recordings. Sahanaja, and later von Mertens, ensured that the instrumental performances matched those in the studio, while Foskett performed a vital function in the early shows, as onstage MC and also as a vocal safety net, doubling Wilson while he was still unsure about carrying a whole show by himself, and covering if he forgot a lyric.
The combination was extraordinary, and the band managed to provide enough support for Wilson that even though he suffered (and sometimes still suffers) not only from stagefright but from his well-documented mental problems, he was still able not only to perform, but to perform well. And Live at the Roxy, recorded over two nights in April 2000, shows that.
While there has been a certain amount of in-studio fixing up (some of Wilson’s vocals sound a little too sweet, perhaps), there has been much less than one might imagine from listening to it. While the performances sound too good to be live, my own experiences of seeing this band (starting less than two years after these recordings, when they first toured the UK) say that yes, this is what they sound like. And the result is a nearly impeccable live recording.
There are faults, of course – latter-day Wilson, even at his best as he is here, is still an acquired taste vocally, and while the harmonies are superb they’re a little top-heavy compared with the Beach Boys originals (the parts that Mike Love sang are often absent or very low in the mix). But as a live record of the artier side of Brian Wilson, focussing especially on the 1965-66 period of his songwriting, it couldn’t be bettered.
The album was released in 2000 through the Internet only, on Wilson’s own BriMel label, with subsequent reissues with bonus tracks, and is currently out of print. The tracklisting of the UK version (the most comprehensive of the releases) is:
Little Girl Intro (the introduction to the show – an audio recording of Wilson directing the musicians in the studio session for “The Little Girl I Once Knew”, which would go into the band playing the song live)
The Little Girl I Once Knew
This Whole World
Don’t Worry Baby
Kiss Me Baby
Do It Again
I Get Around
In My Room
The First Time
This Isn’t Love
Add Some Music To Your Day
Please Let Me Wonder
Til I Die
Let’s Go Away For Awhile
God Only Knows
Lay Down Burden
Be My Baby
All Summer Long
Love And Mercy
Sloop John B (bonus track, only on some versions)
Barbara Ann (bonus track, only on some versions)
Wouldn’t It Be Nice (bonus track, only on some versions)
Help Me, Rhonda (bonus track, only on some versions)
Interview With Brian (bonus track, only on some versions)
I won’t, in this piece, look at each song individually – too often I’d have nothing to say about it other than “it’s like the record, but with an older Brian singing”, but will instead focus on the few new or otherwise interesting tracks.
The First Time
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
This song dates back to 1983, when it was demoed as “In The Night Time”. While a couple of words have been changed in the lyrics for this version, the lyrics are still utter gibberish – little more than mouth noises to give the melody some shape (examples “House of the rising sun/enough love for everyone/happy just to be”, “I’ve heard your voice so sweet/Strangers until we meet/Til the dark side of the moon”). The arrangement is also perfunctory – for the most part just piano chords, drums, and “ooh” backing vocals, along with a sax solo from von Mertens that just restates the melody.
Despite all this, it still works surprisingly well, mostly because the melody itself is exquisite, especially the last section, when it climbs in a way that only Wilson’s melodies do – seeming to strain for something outside experience.
It’s not a great song – truth be told it’s not even a very good song – but it’s one that is nonetheless always a pleasure to hear.
This Isn’t Love
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Tony Asher
In the mid 90s, Wilson briefly teamed up again with Tony Asher, with whom he had written most of Pet Sounds. This track was one of the two songs to result (the other, “Everything I Need”, appeared in two versions – on The Wilsons, featuring Brian, Carnie, and Wendy Wilson, and on Jeffrey Foskett’s Twelve and Twelve album, featuring Foskett, Darian Sahanaja, and Brian Wilson). It was originally released on a various artists compilation of piano instrumentals, Songs Without Words, before being featured in a vocal version in The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, sung by Alan Cumming. On this live version, Wilson talks excitedly about how “it’s gonna be in a movie!”, which is possibly the most excited anyone has ever been about that film.
The song itself is fairly decent, with Asher reprising his trick from “God Only Knows” of starting the song with a surprising negative that he turns to a positive, in this case “this isn’t love, this is destiny”. It does, however, show signs of having lyrics applied to a pre-existing melody, as the syllabics don’t really work. Pretty, but insubstantial.
Songwriter: Stephen Page
A single verse and chorus of the then-recent hit by the Barenaked Ladies, about “lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did”, which remained a regular self-deprecating joke in Wilson’s set for another couple of years.
Lay Down Burden
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Joe Thomas
The one song from Imagination that remained in Wilson’s live set as of 2000, this is also one of the very small number of songs that he performed in a radically different arrangement. Here the song is stripped down to just piano and vocals for almost the entire song (along with some unobtrusive percussion, and a guitar part so low in the mix towards the end that I couldn’t swear it’s there at all), and it manages to improve the song ten thousandfold. It’s still not great, but it shows the solid song that’s there in a way the Imagination version doesn’t.
Be My Baby
Songwriters: Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector
A surprisingly accurate rendition of Wilson’s favourite ever record – the band showing they could do the wall of sound live just as well as they could do Wilson’s more delicate arrangements.
Love and Mercy
Songwriter: Brian Wilson †
Another stripped-down version, again just piano and vocals, this removes the a capella section from the original and recasts it as a gentle, intimate, plea. This version has remained the regular closing song in Wilson’s live set to this day.
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