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Thursday, March 30, 2017

You still believe in me: Brian Wilson’s goodbye to Pet Sounds

Posted By on Thu, Mar 30, 2017 at 7:30 PM

click to enlarge wilson.jpg

A white piano faced the audience at the Saenger Theatre, and Brian Wilson — in a crisp blue button-down shirt, blue jeans and white sneakers — shuffled onstage and sat behind it.

He was surrounded by 11 musicians, all pitch-perfect players with decades of experience, all capable hands for Wilson’s classic songbook, all forming a cheerleading, smiling wall of sound surrounding the star at centerstage. There was a standing ovation for his arrival, then another after “California Girls,” filling the room with lush layers of guitars, keyboards, horns, percussion and those harmonies.

Among the players onstage March 30 were founding Beach Boy Al Jardine, and later (briefly) Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin. Al Jardine’s son Matthew Jardine sang a bulk of Wilson’s share of vocals, hitting his angelic high notes while Wilson chipped in for lower register melodies, which mostly — thankfully — fell flat or short of their recorded counterpart. The cast of A-grade virtuosic musicians were more than equipped to recreate the myriad instruments and details on Pet Sounds, the concert’s centerpiece that Wilson sent on a lengthy tour to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its release, and to say farewell to its live performance, a “one last time” encore that doesn’t say “before” whatever happens next. It’s both an honest admission of the future and a gorgeous but bittersweet reflection of the past, a grim premise buried under sort of dopey, sonically perfect nostalgia, and a living tribute in which the artist is present.

In his 2016 book, I Am Brian Wilson, he says his story has been written so many times he’s not sure whether “someone else is telling me instead of a piece of my own life.” What’s more real: what really happened or what people learned, or thought they learned? Through the turbulence of the Beach Boys, his health, his relationships, his isolation and the intense speculation about all of those things, there were the beautiful songs he wrote and recorded, what they meant to millions of people, and the stories we tell about them.

He wrote ageless masterpieces, embedded classics in popular music and our subconscious. Watching him perform with his band, we see the composer and maestro act also as an imperfect medium, who aged and changed and suffered and loved and is closing a 50-year chapter of a beloved album, rendered perfectly by a 3D-printed cast of professional musicians who know every note and how it's meant to be played through the best sound system money can buy. And they sound amazing. At the center is the fragile human who gave them life. Their creation belongs to him, but he wrote them for us.

Wilson abbreviated some verses and his voice often cracked at any hint of hitting a higher note. He looked tired and wiped sweat from his forehead. But he's Brian Wilson, a big beam of light and the reason for everyone being there. “Please be seated,” he joked, maybe. following his opening ovation. The band thoughtfully, lovingly performed ubiquitous hits “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “I Get Around,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” and “Don’t Worry Baby” before Jardine’s Holland contribution “California Saga: California." Chaplin conducted a heavy set of “Sail On, Sailor,” which he sang on Holland,  “Wild Honey” from the album of the same name, and Carl Wilson's “Feel Flows” from Surf’s Up, which Jardine said hadn’t been performed live in years. The band cranked up the song’s slippery middle groove into a monster-sized riff. “That was written by my brother Carl,” Wilson said, “before he died.” (About 30 years before he died.) Wilson, still seated, shook hands with Chaplin while he was in the middle of a guitar solo.

The band returned from a brief intermission for the concert’s main event, a performance of Pet Sounds in its entirety from start to finish, from the harp-like plucks on the opening notes of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to the barking dogs and train whistles that follow “Caroline, No.” The crowd seemed to hang on to each note, waiting for the next and knowing it was coming. Wilson sounded genuinely surprised to receive another standing ovation following “God Only Knows” and its infinite coda.

The group’s encore began with “Good Vibrations,” a room-filling stunner in surround sound, followed by another exhausting round of early Beach Boys classics. An abrupt end to “Fun, Fun, Fun” signaled a spotlight on Wilson, who closed with a few verses from “Love and Mercy” from his 1988 self-titled solo album. He has frequently closed with the song, offering it as a prayer to his audience before it leaves the concert’s bubble and returns to whatever’s outside.

The prayer follows a tribute to the imperfect, frail person performing it, a reminder of the Beach Boys as a living thing and not a relic of the past or imagination. A human, Brian Wilson, made this music. There he is.

Location Details Saenger Theatre
Saenger Theatre
1111 Canal St.
French Quarter
New Orleans, Louisiana
(504) 287-0351

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