Brian Wilson @Preston Park Brighton 03/09/16
My mate can drink 3 pints of lager through a straw in less time than it takes to boil a kettle.
According to some, this makes him a ‘legend’.
Brian Wilson is regarded by many as a ‘genius’.
I would argue these labels have caused problems for both men and have probably influenced their behaviour and probably not in a good way.
Fortunately, these days, Brian Wilson is old enough (73) and wise enough to realise that Einstein was a genius and yer man Brian Wilson is extremely good at what he does and what he did. It kind of takes some of the pressure off.
Crushed up against the barrier for one of a very small number of UK dates at the ‘Together The People’ Festival in Brighton on a soaking wet and windswept evening that screamed ‘Autumn!’ very loudly isn’t really the vibe you want upfront of the appearance of the guy most responsible for connecting music and summer in America in the sixties, but this is Britain after all, and all that a temperate climate implies. Or to put it another way I’m cold and wet and I really hope this is worth it.
The ensemble set-up is promising though, with a massive array of instruments you aren’t likely to see at many festivals this year. This is perhaps unsurprising as Wilson’s band intend to recreate “Pet Sounds”, the 1966 album which forced the Beatles to ‘up their game’; a fantastically complex concoction which even with today’s technologies must be a challenge to present. For it is 50 years since Brian Wilson recorded “Pet Sounds”, and this tour honours that landmark.
It is also a ‘good sign’ when the best part of a dozen musicians troop on, including The Man Himself and fellow founding Beach Boy Al Jardine, who is so fabulously wealthy he CAN’T be doing this for the money. This clearly isn’t going to be a bargain basement cabaret trip. These boys look like they mean this.
But what are we going to get? Fabulous though it is, the album is not two hours long. Intentions stated straight away, though and after the briefest of intros Wilson announces the band’s intention to start with the ‘finest record The Beach Boys ever made’ – a sentiment Al Jardine seemed to concur with – “California Girls”. Cue the mellotron-style opening and flatulent orchestration, which sounds like distilled essence of summer, and off we go. Rinky-dinky, rinky dinky, rinky dinky, rinky dinky, Game On, we’re off and running. “I Get Around”, ”Shut Down” and “Little Deuce Coupe” in short order, followed by Jardine taking the lead on “California Saga”.
So, twenty minutes in and we’ve already had songs about girls, cars, California surf culture. That’ll do me, lads, we can all go home happy now. Quit while you’re ahead.
On, then, troops Blondie Chaplin, a South African guitarist who was a Beach Boy for a year or so in the early 70’s. He’s a real old Les Paul-totin’ rocker and he’s been in with the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, and insert name here. Some observers have been a bit unkind about his contribution to the tour but I must say I really think it added a bit of mid-set ‘grit’ to proceedings and he made a fine job of “Wild Honey” and the massively under-rated “Sail On Sailor”.
After that Wilson introduces the “Pet Sounds” section of the show, slightly apologetically announcing that we’ll be back to some good old rock n roll later; but for now, the band will present us with the more personal and intimate delights of probably the most influential American album of the sixties (a claim I make despite the fact it took America about two decades to realise this).
And sure enough that’s exactly what they do, from the angel’s harp and six-ton drum strike which announces “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, through the Folkeoke of “Sloop John B” and the song which Jardine blithely reminds us is Paul McCartney’s favourite song, the majestic, dignified and perfect “God Only Knows” through to the crystalline beauty of “Caroline, No”, complete with the audio train charging across the stage marking the end of the album with the barmy barking dog et al.
And did they pull it off?
Too right they did.
But how? It is no secret that the ageing process and the difficulty of the journey has robbed Brian Wilson of some of that fabulous range and vocal flexibility. He also seems to need a bit of help with the lyrics, using a sight screen linked to a tablet computer. No shame in that. That’s just using technology to support what you’re doing. No different to using a PA system or an FX pedal. And he has another formidable weapon in his armoury as well. He’s in fine voice trucking through the mid range sections of the likes of “California Girls” but when it all gets a bit much he chucks the ball across to Matt Jardine, who was pitch-perfect all night and reached the places which a 73-year voice could no longer be reasonably expected to scale (and in fairness, sometimes never did; many of the most striking voice parts on the original recordings weren’t Brian Wilson).
He’s also got Al Jardine. We were warned upfront of the tour that he might not be at all the dates, but I don’t see how. Quite apart from his audible contributions to proceedings he did seem to be a key part of Traffic Control on stage; a lot of what happened seemed to be going ‘through’ him and if that’s the case then you can call me Al, for this was a masterclass.
And Wilson’s penultimate secret weapon; the band. With a total age somewhere around 10,000 years or so they are probably the oldest collective I have ever seen at a rock gig; but what you get is the sum total of a great many misspent youths. If I were Brian Wilson, even if I reached the point where I couldn’t sing anymore or tinkle the ivories I’d probably still want to tour with them just for the sheer joy of hearing my compositions played before a live audience with such love and craft. They are very special musicians.
All great musicians attract the best musicians. That’s a given. But these are something else. At times the sound from percussion, through keyboard to the bass sax and back through the spectacular control of the often mind-boggling bass guitar parts, was breath-taking.
And the final clincher is the material. “Pet Sounds” played live is an earth-shattering experience. And to think this guy created this when he was only 23. It is a work of, errm…..
And just in case anybody thinks it is home time; how about “Good Vibrations”, “Help Me, Rhonda”, “Barbara Ann” – played more rocked-up than I recall and evoking the ‘garage’ feel of the original version by The Regents – “Fun Fun Fun” and a balls-out “Surfin’ USA”. Ensemble bow, no encore, PA system plays “Beach Baby” by British band First Class, and a slightly stunned and absolutely soaked clutch of folks make their way back through the Brighton mud.
Now hear ye. We’re in the 90th minute with this now. Catch this tour. I don’t care what you have to do. Go to Oslo if you have to. Yes, Brian Wilson will barely move throughout the evening. Yes, his voice isn’t capable of doing all the things it did a while ago. But…..the body of work, the range of songs played, the virtuosity of the band, the sheer richness of the sound. And the voices. The Voices, plural. Unfortunately due to the age-related limitations I’ve already referred to I can’t give this the 5-star review it probably deserves because as I’ve said before, you can only review what is in front of you. But it was pretty clear to me I had been in the presence of genius.
Damn. That G – word again. Sorry, Brian.