Former Beach Boy shores up his pop legacy

Brian Wilson, the one-time leader and troubled musical genius behind the California rock group, makes an unlikely comeback in a superbly produced New York concert featuring skilledplaying and transcendent harmonies.


Special to The Globe And Mail

Tuesday, June 22, 1999

New York -- In its preview of Brian Wilson's concert appearance in Manhattan on Friday night, The New Yorker magazine predicted the show could be "transcendent" or "heartbreaking." Such were the stakes for the troubled pop icon who had last graced stages regularly in 1965.

Since panic attacks forced the former Beach Boys boss and oft-described pop genius from the road and into the studio more than 30 years ago, his live appearances have been few and far between, and long-time Wilson devotees wondered why he would risk his reputation at all.

Indeed, with the recent death of his brother and fellow Beach Boy, Carl Wilson, and his mother Audree, this would seem an unlikely moment for Wilson to embark, at age 57, on his first solo tour. Given his own legendary struggles with mental illness and drug addiction, it's no wonder his followers held their breath when the tour was announced.

Yet Friday night's concert at Manhattan's Beacon Theatre was superbly produced, featuring a band of great talent. This was more than a case of Wilson reclaiming his musical legacy. It was a portrait of the artist back from the abyss and moving forward.

As a venue, the Beacon lent a certain surreal quality to the air of expectation. An early 20th-century artifact, the theatre was once used for professional boxing. With its rococo furnishings and hallways, it has aged gracefully into a rock 'n' roll venue.

Massive, drawn-back crimson curtains and a large screen for the concert's light show created an impressive backdrop for a stage loaded with gear for a band of 12. Strangely, proceedings began with the humourous introduction of a movie by a member of Wilson's band. What could have been clumsy was actually charmingly goofy: a mini-documentary featuring footage from Brian Wilson Day in his home town of Hawthorne, Calif., and a brief history of the Beach Boys. The audience cheered every time Brian or brothers Carl and Dennis appeared on screen. They lustily booed Mike Love, the Beach Boy who had been pitted in a legal struggle with Brian Wilson over the band's legacy.

With that, the band appeared, led by a stiff-walking, casually dressed Wilson who sat at a keyboard at centre stage. Cued by bandleader Joe Thomas (co-producer of Wilson's uneven 1998 solo album Imagination), the large ensemble launched into a medley of tightly arranged early Beach Boys hits. The multigenerational band, featuring veterans from Chicago, Los Angeles and the very young L.A. pop band the Wondermints, played with skill, enthusiasm and obvious reverence for the Wilson oeuvre.

Using the keyboard basically as a prop, Wilson fingered the odd chord and sang, tentatively and even painfully flat, at first. The band carried him through the first part of the program. It was clear that he no longer has ready command of the high part of his vocal range. However, the nine harmony vocalists sang beautifully throughout, allowing Wilson to concentrate on the mid- to low-range parts.

It was on the Beach Boys' chestnut I Get Around that Wilson caught fire, singing the lead with a deep rock 'n' roll inflection. On pop tunes like Do It Again, Fun, Fun, Fun and Phil Spector's (a life-long Wilson hero) Be My Baby, the audience witnessed the birth of Brian Wilson, down and dirty rock 'n' roll singer.

Now obviously at ease, applauding the audience after every number, Wilson became more ambitious with his singing. The early, and sadly prophetic, In My Room, rearranged to feature six male and one female harmony part, was stunning, if not transcendent.

An unexpected highlight occurred late in the first set of a show that was more than two hours long. On stage Wilson sat, oddly facing the audience, as the band played the two instrumentals from his acknowledged pop-music masterpiece Pet Sounds, the title track and Let's Go Away for Awhile. With percussion, a warbling surf-guitar, French horn and saxophone, these were exquisitely performed with some new twists and expanded parts.

By the second set, almost every number was followed by a standing ovation. Wilson hushed the crowd to dedicate the new ballad Lay Down Burden to his brother Carl. He then sang Carl Wilson's showcase performance from Pet Sounds, God Only Knows, acknowledged by Paul McCartney as his all-time favourite song.

A five-song encore began with Caroline, No also from Pet Sounds. Singing absolutely solo for the first time all evening, Wilson achingly met the simple, affecting lyric, "Where did your long hair go? Where is the girl I used to know?", with touching naiveté. Then, to everyone's astonishment, except evidently his own, he effortlessly hit one of the most celebrated high notes in the annals of pop music, on the line "Oh Caroline, why?" The band members arrayed behind him grinned from ear to ear.

The encore proceeded with about 15 minutes of flat out rock 'n' roll. Wilson and the band departed, it seemed for good, but then came the grace note of a remarkable performance. Returning to his keyboard and accompanied by Joe Thomas on piano and the full harmony ensemble, Wilson performed Love and Mercy. In a pure, almost child-like voice, he sang this caring and painful song that marked his return from personal darkness in the past decade: "Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight." More than 2,000 New Yorkers listened in rapt attention to this Californian pop star making the most unlikely of comebacks.