Brian Wilson Still Surfing the Curl of the Wave

The master composer and his band perform the seminal Beach Boys' album 'Pet Sounds' and other hits.

The Brian Wilson Band performing at Denmark's Roskilde Festival in 2005. photo: Pardy and Wikipedia.

The Brian Wilson Band performing at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival in 2005. photo: Pardy and Wikipedia.

Brian Wilson played to a packed house for his Thursday night concert at the Benedum Center. This may amaze some people as the man has not had a hit in years. Nostalgia acts can be hot, but usually not this hot. The large turnout testifies to the fact that great music stands the test of time. Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys’ songs are strongly embedded into the great American rock songbook. Wilson is the musical genius behind much of this success.

He started out with surfing songs, then evolving into a deeper, more introspective, and sometimes avant-garde rock. The album Pet Sounds was the genesis of this shift. This concert was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the album.

The Brian Wilson/Beach Boys musical wave is built upon a column of strong rhythmic drumming, steady bass, several jangly lead guitars, sweet piano and keyboards notes, and horns all tightly wrapped in the most beautiful vocal harmonies around.

Simple Stage, Intricate Music

The stage was simply set with rich purple-red drapes in several tight groupings behind the performers, and in front of a green backdrop. The drapes and backdrop would change colors  during the concert as different-colored lights shone on them.

When Wilson and band took the stage, the crowd erupted into a loud and sustained standing ovation. Wilson smiled and said, “Hello Pittsburgh,” then started the group off with the song “Our Prayer”—a brief a capella hymn from the album Brian Wilson Presents Smile.  

Wilson sat at his black grand piano just slightly left of center and Al Jardine lined up to the right of him. Wilson wore a blue dress shirt, dark pants, and white sneakers. Jardine opted for a white suit, white Stratocaster, and a dress shirt. Farther left on the stage were keyboard players Billy Hinsche and Gary Griffin. Over on the right of the stage was Paul Von Mertens, who played sax, flute, harmonica, and clarinet. On the riser behind the front row were, left to right, multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory, percussionist Nelson Bragg, drummer Mike D’Amico, bass guitarist Bob Lizik, vocalist Matt Jardine, and lead guitarist Nick Walusko (a.k.a. Nicky Wonder).

Several songs into the concert, things really got going when the first few piano notes of “California Girls” could be heard. Al Jardine encouraged the crowd to clap along. Bright white lights occasionally lit up the audience during the song and several others. That was followed by the classic “I Get Around.”

The fun continued with Wilson and band revving up for the muscle car songs “Shut Down,” with its fuel injected Stingray, and the “Little Deuce Coupe” that “can get rubber in all four gears.” Al Jardine sang lead. Wilson then said, “Here’s a surf song for you,” and took everyone to the beach with “Catch a Wave.” It had nice piano and keys as Bragg used soft sticks to tap out some notes. The multi-instrumentalists really earned their pay in this concert as they were changing instruments quite frequently depending on what each song required.

Wilson and founding Beach Boys member Al Jardine, along with later Beach Boy (and touring Rolling Stones band member) Blondie Chaplin, synched up well with the stellar band. Jardine’s son Matt is a falsetto vocalist, who was called on for most of the songs requiring high notes. At times, there were eleven performers on stage—that’s equal to a football side. It was a wonderful wall of sound that they produced. Almost all of them had a mic to contribute to backing vocals.

Another surf song in the first set was “Surfer Girl,” which Wilson mentioned was the first song he ever wrote, at the age of 19. It contains the longing question, “Do you love me, do you surfer girl?”

Other first set highlights included “In My Room” and “Don’t Worry Baby.” Matt Jardine hit all the high notes beautifully in the latter. Chaplin ran the band through one of the hardest rockers of the night on “Wild Honey,” with him on lead guitar and vocals. A theremin was used extensively in the piece, giving it a slightly eerie overtone. Von Mertens contributed a hot sax highlight.

The first set ended with “Sail On, Sailor,” about sailing through the hardships of life and keeping the resolve to carry on. The song started with a jaunty, rolling piano intro by Wilson and then Chaplin—who sang the number originally on the Beach Boys’ Holland album—started in with the lead vocals, beautifully supported by soaring background vocal harmonies. Wilson was smiling and raised his arms in exultation as Al Jardine and Chaplin jammed on their guitars. Chaplin playing his Gibson Les Paul Jr. The song ended in a nice drum flourish by D’Amico. The crowd was in a state of bliss and rewarded the band with sustained applause.

Pet Sounds: The Second Greatest Album of All Time

Wilson was heavily influenced by Phil Spector’s innovative wall of sound. This is evidenced by an answer he gave during an interview in 1999 when asked if he believed in God, and replied “I believe in Phil Spector.” In 2011, he stated that he was spiritual, although he said he didn’t follow any particular religion but believed music was God’s voice.

In addition to Wilson’s music being very pleasant, it can be at times introspective, spiritual, and full of humanity. This is the type of album Pet Sounds is. Wilson has said that Pet Sounds is about his life. It was a departure from the cars, surfing, and girls themes of the previous Beach Boys’ songs.

Wilson, in 1965, exhausted from the rigors of working on new material and touring, stayed off the road to create new songs while the rest of the band toured Japan and Hawaii without him. During that period, Wilson also experimented with LSD. Pet Sounds is an album with psychedelic influences. The band was shocked to hear Wilson’s new material when they returned home.

After the initial shock, Pet Sounds somehow got made with some adjustments from all sides involved. In 1966 it went on to reach no. 10 on the Billboard 200 charts in the U.S., which is lower than what most of the previous Beach Boys’ albums charted. However, in the U.K., it ran all the way up to no. 2. It was the first concept album, the first album where the album was more important that the singles it contained. Pet Sounds laid the groundwork for The Beatles’ legendary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Paul McCartney was reportedly very impressed with the Pet Sounds song “God Only Knows” when he first heard it.

Wilson wrote the music for Pet Sounds, and lyricist/advertising jingle writer Tony Asher wrote the lyrics based on a narrative from Wilson. The two had met just weeks earlier at a recording studio where they both were working on projects. Pet Sounds is ranked by Rolling Stone as the second greatest album of all time, right behind The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s. Pet Sounds is composed of several top songs that most people know and some lesser known, experimental ones. Even the more obscure ones are interesting and pleasant to hear.

Pets Sounds Concert Set

When the band came back from break, Wilson said they would now play Pet Sounds and started into the album’s first song, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” The high note plucking of a 12 string guitar opens the song and then are met by drums, keys, guitars, and vocals. The youthful anthem sounded fantastic. They then veered into “You Still Believe in Me,” a song Wilson said “was about a boy and girl who screwed up.” It was a softer song with Wilson singing lead, nice backing vocals, and an overriding harpsichord-like sound.

“That’s Not Me” featured long single organ notes, nice understated periodic jazz guitar licks, and occasional drum parts. Wilson sings about how he “Once had a dream so I packed up and split for the city, but soon found out that my lonely life wasn’t so pretty … What matters to me is what I could be to just one girl.” “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” was up next, softly crafted with flute, xylophone, soft drums, and guitars with Wilson singing at one point “Listen, listen, listen.”

Things livened back up a little with “I’m Waiting for the Day,” a soft rocker about consoling a girl who has just broken up with her boyfriend.. “Let’s Go Away for Awhile” was a beautiful instrumental piece with intricate piano, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, and xylophone parts, supported brilliantly with keyboards, percussion, and guitars.

Wilson called out “Welcome Aboard,” he and the group then launched into the well-known “Sloop John B” with Wilson and Al Jardine trading leads. The song made nice use of a glockenspiel to make tiny bell-like sounds, and Bragg worked the percussion blocks in a fine manner.

Next up was a song Wilson wrote for his first wife called “God Only Knows.” He said it was one of his best songs and that Paul McCartney told him that it was one of his favorite songs. French horn, flute, and layered background vocals are beautifully featured along with piano, keys, guitar, drums, and percussion. The song moves along softly with some nice subtle tempo changes. Wilson sang it with such meaning and reverence, which the audience appreciated.

“I Know There’s an Answer” was originally titled “Hang On to Your Ego” and was about Wilson’s LSD experiences, but it caused friction in the Beach Boys, so Wilson changed the title and lyrics. It’s an interesting full song featuring many different instruments, tempos, and styles, but done in a pleasing manner. The lyric “I know there’s an answer, but I have to find it by myself” is reprised several times in the song.

“Here Today” is a piano-driven rocker about infatuation and the perils of falling in love. The phrase “Love is here today…And it’s gone tomorrow” is repeated several times. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” expresses Wilson’s frustration that he was becoming socially alienated because his musical thinking was ahead of the prevailing tastes. It’s one of the most introspective songs on Pet Sounds and sounded good played live.

The song “Pet Sounds” Wilson wrote with the idea of it  possibly becoming a score for a James Bond movie, but the producers weren’t interested. It was originally titled “Run James Run” and features plenty of horn play and nice high guitar notes played masterfully by Wonder. The song has a distinct Latin rhythm to it and even features bongos and a guiro.

The pretty ballad “Caroline, No” speaks about a girl he used to know and how’s she changed. In the original recording no Beach Boys played on it. Wilson used the soon to be famous group of studio musicians who would be known as the Wrecking Crew. It sounded lovely played by the band live in concert with harpsichord, xylophone, and flute combining smoothly with the band’s regular instruments and a recording of a train and Wilson’s dogs barking.

The arrangements for instruments and vocals on these songs is very complex and impressive.

Encore

The band left the stage after “Caroline, No,” and after a few minutes of cheering and applause, they returned for the encore. What an encore it was, like listening to a good FM rock radio station in the 1960s or ‘70s. The crowd gave the band a standing ovation as they retook the stage. Wilson remarked—in regards to the audience—“these are good vibrations.” And then he plunged the musicians into “Good Vibrations.” The band proceeded to run through some of the Beach Boys’ biggest hits, including “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ U.S.A,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.”

The crowd stood for the entire encore, many dancing in the seats or aisles. Wilson ended the concert with the tender “Love and Mercy.” Altogether, he and the band played two one-hour sets with a 20-minute intermission in between.

Brian Wilson gives the OK sign and a smile while performing as part of The Beach Boys 50th Anniversary Reunion at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2012. photo: Takahiro Kyono, Wikipedia.

Brian Wilson gives the OK sign and a smile while performing as part of The Beach Boys 50th Anniversary Reunion at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2012. photo: Takahiro Kyono, Wikipedia.

Brian Wilson’s musical skills may be diminished somewhat from his prime due to age, the aftereffects of drug and alcohol abuse, and having suffered with mental illness for many years, but the man is a true champion! He was very gracious to the audience and members of his band. His music is magnificent and resonates with people—that’s why the Benedum Center was sold out. Here’s hoping he continues to tour and provide joy to others as long as it gives him pleasure and he is able.

Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central and loves great music.