Friday, November 14, 2008

Sail on, Brian Wilson

One afternoon long ago, I walked into the offices of The Daily Targum to find Oregon's foremost financial wizard engrossed in a conversation with Mr. J about the Beach Boys and Pet Sounds. He kept referencing it over and over again.

Finally, I asked.

"What's Pet Sounds?"

He was kind enough to overlook my status as a cultural rube and fill me in. In his mind, it was just about the best album in the history of mankind. His fierce devotion to the album made me curious, and eventually I bought the album to investigate.

Kudos to E.P. for his rabid insistence that I check Pet Sounds out, for it has become one of my all-time favorites in the decade-plus since that afternoon in Suite 431. Out of that, a desire grew to see one of the 20th century's true musical geniuses, Brian Wilson, perform live.

Mrs. VFR and I got that chance Wednesday night when Wilson brought himself and his excellent 10-person band to the Michigan Theater, one of two solid concert venues in town.

Maybe it was because it was a little odd to see Wilson sitting center stage in front of his keyboard, reading his lyrics off a teleprompter, but the show got off to a slow start. The audience was dead.

About three or four songs into the evening, the audience pretty much snored through California Girls. (Mrs. VFR, Baby VFR and myself were rare exceptions, up and dancing).

One of the guitar players then wondered out loud whether we had all be lulled by "sleeping gas," and seriously asked if they needed to play California Girls again to awaken people.

It was an embarrassing effort by Ann Arborites. One of music's greatest living composers played our little stain on the map, and the majority of townspeople sat comatose.

Everyone exhaled a little after that well-deserved admonishment, and let loose. Wilson then introduced God Only Knows, what he called "the best song I've ever written," and the show kicked up a notch.

He rolled through an off-the-hits-track gem in Sail On Sailor, then rallied again with Good Vibrations, Surf's Up and Fun, Fun, Fun. By the time the show reached intermission, we were awash in a melodic mix of horns, guitars and layered harmonies.

While those popular Beach Boys hits of the '60s served as the underpinnings of the show, the best part of the night came in the second act.

Wilson played his new album, "That Lucky Old Son," in its entirety, and was joined on stage by three violinists.

At first, I was a little nervous the crotchety old crowd might cringe over the fact he turned away from the Top 40 stuff, but they survived.

The new album is a wonderful compilation, a love letter to Los Angeles, the city that came of age in the late 1950s and 60s and sold itself to America by offering up surfing and T-Bird images that populate the Beach Boys' music.

But Lucky Old Son is more melancholy than sunshine, and there are corners of sadness and regret for every note of confidence. In that way, it reminds me of Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under The Bridge," their look at loneliness in L.A.

It's just a beautiful album that embraces the boldness and heartbreak of the Beach Boys' brilliance, as well as the modern city as a place of hope and aspiration. It's something Wilson could only have written with age and his kaleidoscope of life experience.

And it was a treat to hear it live.

He closed the show with a rollicking six-song encore that kicked off with a cover of Johnny B Goode, and included Barbara Ann, Help Me Rhonda and Surfin' USA. For those last two, he came off the keyboard and joined his bandmates with Fender in hand.

By that point, the crowd had redeemed itself and we left thrilled, knowing that we had spent the night witnessing one of music's elder statesman put on an excellent show with a very, very good backing band.

Two days later, I'm still ooohing and ahhing, and baa-baa-baabbing.



At 1:36 AM, Blogger Nathan Fenno said...

Sounds like a fantastic concert, seatbound Ann Arborites aside (that part reminds me of Saturdays at the Big House ... though the concert was probably louder).

Over the years, I've enjoyed how Wilson's music works on so many different levels, from simply enjoying the catchy melodies in elementary school (I was the only kid who knew who the Beach Boys were, much less the lyrics to each song) to the depth musically, lyrically and socially that grabbed me as I got older. Not many artists can produce material with depth like that while still remaining accessible to musical neophytes.

At 11:18 AM, Blogger SJPSandman said...

The man is a genius, in every sense of the word.

The band I'm playing in now does a few Beach Boys covers -- Sloop John B, Don't Worry Baby, Surfer Girl -- and of all the music we play, nailing a Beach Boys tune is, by far, the most satisfying. Believe me, with the complexity of those vocals, it doesn't happen often.

At 7:01 PM, Blogger Todd Cohen said...

I believe that kid is coming to the new Wellmont Theater in Montclair soon.

And touching on what the Sandman wrote, nailing a BB tune is the only nailing that kid is doing these days.

(here's hoping he doesn't reread your comments page)

At 7:43 PM, Blogger Erik Peterson said...

I am so glad that you got to see BW live. Even if he's just a shell of what he used to be, it's still an experience to see him up close. He's definitely surrounded himself with amazing musicians who understand just how much of a feat it is to have the man sharing his best music with both old and new generations. Up until 2000, he hadn't toured in three and a half decades!

Although I have all of his solo albums, I love to hear him pull out some of the more obscure BB songs like "Sail on Sailor" and "Surf's Up". The latter is my favorite BW composition.

Thanks for the shout out and I'm glad that some time ago in New Brunswick you took a liking to the Beach Boys.

You probably know it already, but Kevin Love is the nephew of BB founder and satan himself, Mike Love. That's probably explains why I cannot stand Kevin Love.


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