Sunday, June 19, 2016
Review and photos by Seth Rogovoy
(LENOX, Mass., June 19, 2016) – Brian Wilson didn’t make it easy for himself when he set out on a tour whose primary purpose was to play the entire paradigm-shifting “Pet Sounds” album on its 50th anniversary this year. Among the albums manifold, groundbreaking virtues was the manner in which Wilson, in a sense, used the recording process itself as his main instrument, on his way toward making what at the time, and even to this day, is one of the most avant-garde recordings of all time.
So to render the magic of “Pet Sounds” – originally credited to the Beach Boys, but widely and more correctly understood (and perhaps originally intended) to be a Brian Wilson solo album – in a live concert is not only a thankless task. It’s damn near impossible.
Yet “Pet Sounds” remains Wilson’s singular achievement as a composer, songwriter, producer and recording artist, and the songs are still deeply and profoundly meaningful to their author. And the story they tell, such as it is – the story of one man’s descent into a terrible minefield of anxiety, depression, fear, and, eventually, madness – is as vital and even more poignant today than it was in 1966. We know so much more now of the backstory to the creation of the album, and Wilson’s state of mind when he worked on it, and our appreciation of it all was given a significant boost a few years back with the only very loosely fictionalized feature film version, “Love & Mercy.”
Given the task Wilson set before himself – and given the fact that the musicians at Tanglewood on Sunday, unlike those in Boston at Symphony Hall the two previous nights, did not include an orchestra, somewhat vital if the intent is to realize live what Wilson had set down on a recording that included many precise orchestral flourishes — he was nearly doomed to failure. And given the fact that Wilson is, from all appearances, only a mere shadow of his former self – the artist, one couldn’t help but think, was not present – there is no way this performance could have done justice to the original.
The fact that Wilson’s meandering voice betrays his humbling decline, and that his demeanor throughout suggests that he wasn’t even all there, well, the best thing one can say about it all is that it added a sense of poignancy to what is already one of the most poignant song cycles ever written.
But Wilson was ably assisted by a dynamic ensemble that included a Beach Boys original, Al Jardine, who was in good voice and seemed almost underutilized, as well as Jardine’s son, Matthew, who handled the soaring high notes that Wilson and others in the group used to tackle, and did so with nearly pitch-perfect subtlety and honor.
Also on hand was Blondie Chaplin, a touring member of the Beach Boys for a few years in the 1970s, when Brian and Bruce Johnston were no longer on the road with the group, and Chaplin took a frontman role on vocals and guitar, best known for his song, “Sail On, Sailor.” Although here, he seemed something of an odd-man out, playing several long, hard-rock guitar solos that didn’t mesh with “Pet Sounds” or the extensive back catalog of Beach Boys’ tunes the band played. He seemed more along for the ride to up the authentic Beach Boys quotient in the lineup, although no one was pretending this was the Beach Boys and if anything his participation seemed somewhat gratuitous. This is no judgment on Chaplin as a musician – he’s done excellent stints with the Rolling Stones and with members of The Band in the post-“Last Waltz” years, as well as considerable solo work.
If the “Pet Sounds” songs didn’t quite replicate the magic of the original arrangements, they were nonetheless still as heartbreaking as ever in their complex melodies, arrhythmic touches, colorful textures and, well, Brian Wilson’s odd “pet sounds” (although the barking dogs were noticeably missing). The drummer and percussionist did a terrific job of capturing Hal Blaine’s innovative experiments that did much to lend the album its Phil Spector-style “Wall of Sound,” although the electro-theremin bits were a bit overdone – much more so than on the originals.
As maybe is to be expected, the audience sat through the “Pet Sounds” segment that took up much of the second set with intellectual appreciation and polite applause. But it wasn’t until the band brought it all home towards the end, with pre-“Pet Sounds” surf-rock hits including “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ USA,” and “Fun Fun Fun,” that the crowd truly got off its feet and went wild for the band. Presumably they would have enjoyed a Mike Love-led Beach Boys concert even more.
Wilson did, however, throw one final curve which struck out the batter to end the inning and win the game. He concluded the concert with his late-career theme song, “Love and Mercy,” whose second verse originally went:
I was lying in my room
And the news came on TV
A lotta people out there hurtin’
And it really scares me.
This time out, Wilson sang instead:
I was lying in my room
And the news came on TV
A lotta people getting shot
It scared the hell out of me
suggesting that, as much as he might not have been made for these times – or any times – he still is with us, in and of these times, at some level.
(For a further appreciation of Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds” album by Seth Rogovoy, please click here to read “’Pet Sounds’ On The Road: Revisiting The Sad Genius Of Brian Wilson” at WBUR’s The ARTery.)