Brian Wilson’s name was glowing in all-caps and neon yellow, alternating with the word “TONIGHT” all the way around the street corner on Radio City Music Hall’s marquee on Saturday. Beneath the lights, a large cluster of fans was funneling toward the doors through security, and those who weren’t part of the lucky bunch were begging every passerby for an extra ticket. If Brian had sensed the good vibrations of the NYC crowd – who were rightfully passionate about seeing the 75-year-old legend for one of his final Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary shows – it was only subtly perceptible when he walked onstage at 8pm on the dot. His usual resolute, pre-performance expression was upturned with just a hint of a smile, and the look in his eyes seemed to challenge the inherent pressure of the hallowed venue. After a big, encouraging grin from Al Jardine, his close friend and fellow Beach Boys co-founder who was sharing the stage, Brian responded with a “ready to go” look that launched the band into “California Girls,” satisfying us with a sun-drenched start that was quickly followed by “Dance, Dance, Dance.” “Here’s one from the early 70s,” announced Brian in a surprisingly laid-back tone before they dove into “I Get Around,” completing the crowd-pleasing trifecta that has opened his show throughout this tour.
With his genius level of musicality and heightened sensitivity to sound, it must be extremely satisfying for Brian to hear his songs recreated by such a top-notch ensemble – an 11-person one, no less, with the addition of longtime Beach Boys guitarist Blondie Chaplin, who joined for the tail end of the first set. It was certainly satisfying for the audience, many of whom seemed a bit hindered by Radio City’s formal seating arrangement and probably would have preferred standing and jumping. Continuing the strong start, Brian and his deft band dusted off The Beach Boys’ twelve-bar-blues classic from ‘63, “Shut Down,” then rocked us with “Little Deuce Coupe” – followed by a “Little Honda” that seemed a bit slower than the studio version, with a fun lilted feel to it. In contrast, the two nostalgic ballads that followed, “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl,” seemed slightly faster than usual, and Brian nailed the lower-register vocals on both. In the masterful exchange he has now perfected with Al’s talented son, Matt Jardine, Brian passed off the verse to him so he could take on the high-register parts, on those wide-ranging songs and others. It was a seamless and meticulously-timed duet, and one that took two months of rehearsal together before they went on tour, as Brian told us in our recent interview.
“Okay, time to rock and roll!” Brian enthused after the slow songs, as if trying to keep everyone’s attention (though he had it well before the show). With the support of Al Jardine’s unmistakable Beach Boys sound, they broke out “Salt Lake City,” “Let the Wind Blow,” “I’d Love Once Just to See You,” and “Aren’t You Glad,” before dunking us into the cool chords of “California Saga: California.” The upbeat drum intro that kicked off “Don’t Worry Baby” was an unexpected surprise, and Matt Jardine sounded more Brian-like than ever on the difficult tune. Seeming much less restrained than in previous shows, Brian and his band – plus one hard-rocking Blondie Chaplin, who wore a flashy white suit and danced all over the stage – cut loose on “Let Him Run Wild,” “Darlin’” “Feel Flows,” “Wild Honey,” and “Sail on Sailor,” leaving wiggle room for riffing in extended solo sections. When the lights came on for the intermission, the wide range of clothing fans had donned for the occasion was remarkable – everything from tuxes and formal wear to bikini tops and beach clothes. It was a funny display of affection, but the sheer fact that so many people knew they needed to dress up special for an icon like Brian Wilson is enough to restore one’s faith in the masses.
The much-anticipated second set – featuring a full run-through of Pet Sounds, the big treat of this tour – started with little delay after intermission, and the snappy first drum hit of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” prompted instant squeals from the audience. Apart from the band’s meticulous reproduction of every note, whistle, dog bark, and pitter patter of percussion in the 1966 masterpiece, there were a few notable moments that broke away from the original, and they were exciting to witness – especially for the detail-obsessed fans who were following along closely. Brian’s vocals on “That’s Not Me” were so rich and certain, they seemed to reverberate in a whole new way. The end of their awesome run of “Sloop John B” was followed by a charming transition from Al Jardine (that the record will now surely seem lacking without), who explained, “We’re going to flip the album over now and go to Side 2,” taking us back to the days of vinyl. Another memorable moment was the massive standing ovation Brian received for “God Only Knows,” whose vocals were gorgeous, unhurried, and seemingly void of nerves. After enduring the roaring applause for as long as he could, Brian quickly instructed, in an impatient but somewhat amused tone, “Okay, please be seated! Thank you!” and the audience shared a collective giggle as they obeyed the order.
Another departure from the original came at the end of “I Know There’s An Answer,” when Brian sang out a series of “whoa-oh-oh”s after the final chorus, an embellishment that is absent from the studio version. And unforgettably, his introduction before the instrumental track, “Here Today,” made the sonic journey even more of a pleasure. Brian gave his percussionists such a loud and enthusiastic recommendation, it audibly caught the crowd by surprise. “Here’s one with no singers, just musical instruments…and the drums are GREAT on this one!” he boomed, all but shouting the word in unrestrained joy. They were, of course, and there was no way you couldn’t enjoy them after hearing how much he still does. Brian’s somewhat abrupt departure in the middle of album closer “Caroline No” wasn’t a surprise for anyone who knows his quirks, but rather, the mark of an excellent show, since he hadn’t left the stage sooner. Whether he just needed a break or was building suspense for an encore, he achieved the latter in spades, and the audience leapt to their feet when they realized it might be the last they saw of him. They patiently awaited as the full ensemble was announced by name, coming out one-by-one to snippets of classic rock songs that they busted out live.
It became clear that Brian would be the last name announced, and his entrance resulted in a massive and well-deserved cheer. Leaving no hits behind, they burned through a feel-good finale of “Good Vibrations,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun,” which kept the audience on their feet as they finally got the chance to dance. Brian closed with the moving “Love and Mercy,” a song that is so powerful, it feels like an important piece of history every time he sings it – and by any account, it marked the end of a victorious performance. Knowing how introspective he is, it’s hard to say whether he felt all the love and truly celebrated the show, or simply felt pleased that all the right notes had fallen into the right places. We’re hoping it was the former, or some combination of both. No one deserves that post-show satisfaction as much as Brian Wilson.
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley