You know what’s a real ball puncher? On Tuesday night, in a sold out Mahaffey Theater packed to the roof with blue hairs and people who dye their blue hair, Brian Wilson had to calm the room down — seriously.
“Please be seated,” Wilson, 74, said calmly after kicking off the second side of Pet Sounds.
The Beach Boys mastermind was in between performances of “God Only Knows” and “I Know There’s An Answer.” The crowd, all 2,000 of them, were on their feet giving a standing ovation to a man who, half a century ago, gave the world all of himself on the way to creating what will forever be known as an album that changed the course of music history.
Still, criticisms of Wilson in his current condition are not hard to find.
He’s old. No shit.
He can’t hit the falsettos anymore. No shit. That’s what Al Jardine’s son, Matt, is there to try and do.
But he sings off of a teleprompter! No fucking shit sherlock.
If critics were asked to recall just a few hundred of their most memorable lines night in and night out after a lifetime of drugs (both prescribed and unprescribed), they might need one, too. The folks calling for Wilson to hang it up and abort this 50th anniversary tour for Pet Sounds are forgetting one simple thing. Hanging it up is not what life — especially Wilson’s — is about. Have detractors read about the mental anguish and outside fighting Wilson endured to bring the album to life? Do they remember how all of the conflicts eventually came to a head, effectively derailing Smile, the follow up to Pet Sounds?
Have these salty critics ever held a puppy?
Pet Sounds is an album about love, both unrequited and abundantly returned. It’s about longing. It’s about insecurity. It’s about wanting to die, and it’s also about trying to do your best while you’re alive. From a pure technical level, Pet Sounds is still the one of the most elegantly composed, arranged and produced albums known to people who aren’t deaf. It stands as one of the finest marriages between studio innovation and pure human songwriting to ever be recorded.
On stage Tuesday night, Wilson and his ten piece band (which included Al Jardine and part-time Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin) did all they could to execute the album’s 35-minutes to perfection (props to whoever hit the bicycle horn at the end of “You Still Believe In Me”). While it didn’t sound exactly like that recording first pressed in 1966, the performance still held on to all the warmth, emotion and earnest that the Beach Boys put to tape during the almost year long sessions.
Wilson did take his time warming up, however. The evening’s first stanza was an hour long, 15-song set that included selections from his solo output and a smattering of Beach Boys albums. He said the band had just rigged up “Salt Lake City” in rehearsals. The cut went off just fine, but not as captivating as when the band harmonized on “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl.” Chaplin, 65, who recorded with the Beach Boys on two studio albums, commanded attention during his solo on “Sail Away” from Wilson’s 2015 solo LP No Pier Pressure. His energy onstage suggested that he might be stumbling out of Central Avenue’s Emerald Bar by the time this review gets filed.
The meat of the evening really was in the middle of the performance.
Pet Sounds's set kicked off with Wilson telling the crowd that the album features 13 songs and is “artistic.” We know Brian, thanks. There are decades old interviews where Wilson is playful and loquacious. His current state — a result of drugs, depression and inner voices that berate him — doesn’t lend itself to much rambling these days, but he was jovial on Tuesday night and complimentary of Matt Jardine as well as Matt’s dad, “Alan.” Matt was born the year Pet Sounds saw release, and these days he’s responsible for covering the falsettos Wilson can no longer execute.
Wilson’s voice, though limited in range, has no trouble conveying the emotions he was going through when writing and recording Pet Sounds. “You Still Believe in Me,” with all of its broken promises and unconditional love is a tear jerker. “I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” remains one of the greatest, most easily relatable loner anthems featuring a theremin. Kudos to bandleader Paul Von Mertens for ensuring instrumental tracks “Let’s Go Away for Awhile” and “Pet Sounds” remained as busy and captivating live as they are on record.
For such a short album, the substance Pet Sounds is made of is remarkably rich in its sonics and simple lyrical approach. Listeners could probably spend a lifetime with it and always find something new to hear or latch onto. The comprehensive body of work that Wilson and the Beach Boys have created is also full of some of the most innocent, good time pop songs ever written, and a six-song encore of greatest hits proved that.
There is a lot of praise to throw around when presented with a production like the one on Tuesday night, but it all boils back down to Brian. It boils down to a troubled, immensely talented man sitting at his piano — sometimes with hands on the keys and sometimes with them resting on his knees — working through songs of his past for a room who lived so much of their lives with his voice coming out of the speakers.
Wilson chose the title, and opening, track of his 1988 solo debut, Love and Mercy as the final song of the set on Tuesday night. He didn’t touch the piano, leaving Gary Griffin the task of working through those chords. Wilson just sat there and sang, louder than he had all night, about how observing the world sometimes leaves people with a shitty feeling.
“I was standing in a bar and watching all the people there,” is how the lyric goes. “Oh, the loneliness in this world. Well it's just not fair — love and mercy, that's what we need tonight.”
In that moment, after Wilson walked off stage in clunky white walking shoes, it was a little easier to understand the genius of this man whose music leaves a mark on anyone who’ll listen. It’s easy to know why he doesn’t want to stop trying to bring it to life onstage. It’s really quite simple actually.
The body deteriorates, but the spirit does not.
Setlist: Brian Wilson at Mahaffey Theater, September 13, 2016 (Listen on Spotify)
I Get Around
Little Deuce Coupe
In My Room
Don’t Worry Baby
Salt Lake City
Wake The World
Add Some Music to Your Day
California Saga: California
Sail On, Sailor
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
You Still Believe In Me
That’s Not Me
Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)
I’m Waiting For the Day
Let’s Go for Away for Awhile
Sloop John B
God Only Knows
I Know There’s An Answer
I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times
Help Me, Rhonda
Fun, Fun, Fun
Love and Mercy