9:38 AM CDT, May 22, 2012
Brian Wilson broke character Monday at the Chicago Theatre in the first of two 50th anniversary concerts by his longtime band.
The most fragile of the Beach Boys plunged into the turmoil of “Sail On, Sailor,” a song rarely performed by the group since he and Van Dyke Parks wrote it in the early ‘70s. “There's no wonder all I'm under/Stop the crying and the lying/And the sighing and my dying,” Wilson raged, reserving special venom for the words “lying” and “dying.”
Wilson spent much of the concert as the silver-haired backing vocalist behind a baby grand piano, a beloved if impassive legend who barely cracked a smile as his musical life was replayed in front of him: 44 songs, many written and produced by him, spread over 2 ½ hours. The audience roared approval of his every small gesture, and his stolid vocals on such loner classics as “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” and “In My Room.” They were applauding the memories of those songs as much as his performance of them.
This was for many longtime fans the most significant Beach Boys tour in decades because Wilson had finally reunited with his bandmates; he had basically stopped performing with the Beach Boys after the ‘70s save for a handful of shows due to a variety of health and personal issues. But he was essentially an observer as his cousin and songwriting partner, Mike Love, ran the show, flanked by three early band members: guitarists Al Jardine and David Marks, and keyboardist Bruce Johnston.
Whatever the political machinations behind the reunion, it was a stirring journey through a great songbook, in part because it didn’t just focus on the hits. Some of the detours were sublime (the wrenching Wilson ‘60s B-side “Please Let Me Wonder”), some silly (the deep album cut “All This is That,” a tribute to the wonders of transcendental meditation). The overwhelming impression was of music that has endured well beyond the Beach Boys’ girls-cars-surf beginnings.
The opening “Do It Again” set the nostalgic tone, but the music crackled with life in large measure because of the 10-piece backing band. Many of these musicians had accompanied Wilson on his brilliantly executed solo tours in the last decade, when he reprised more personal Beach Boys classics such as “Pet Sounds” and “Smile.”
They played their roles with enthusiasm, hardcore fans as much as hired guns. Drummer John Cowsill and percussionist Nelson Bragg put some wallop underneath the dense vocal melodies while whipping their hair and smiling like burly Muppets. Guitarists Jeff Foskett and Scott Totten handled many of the falsetto vocal parts beyond the reach of the Beach Boys veterans. Sleigh bells, theremin, flute, saxophone, vibraphone – all the colors behind the Beach Boys’ state-of-the-art studio productions found their way into the mix.
Each core band member got a turn in the spotlight: Jardine with his twangy, hit remake of Lead Belly’s “Cotton Fields,” Johnston on his “Disney Girls” (in which he declared with Wilson-like plaintiveness that “reality’s not for me”) and Marks with his taut guitar solos and rare lead vocal on “Hawaii.” There were showcases for Wilson’s deceased brothers, Carl and Dennis. And there were a handful of covers illustrating the band’s debt to early rock ‘n’ roll (Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music”), Phil Spector (“Then He Kissed Me” remade as “Then I Kissed Her”) and doo wop (via Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”).
The group’s celebrations of California surf and car culture framed the opening set, but it was Part 2 where the music cut deepest. It began with the core quintet gathered around Wilson’s piano for a mission statement: “Add Some Music to Your Day.” Then it reclaimed the beauty of the band’s more melancholy and complex late ‘60s and early ‘70s work. “Heroes and Villains” melted into intricate, multi-part harmonies that brought smiles to the faces of the participants as Wilson waved his arms with uncharacteristic vigor. “Good Vibrations,” with its plush harmonies and outer-space sound effects still sounded futuristic.
A new track, “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” didn’t quite match that heavyweight standard. But it served as a tidy reminder of why the Beach Boys endure. Rock ‘n’ roll, it declared, is “the soundtrack of falling in love.” In turn, the Beach Boys made falling in love sound both sacred and tragic – their joy tinged by sadness, their despair lifted by hope. And sometimes, as suggested by Brian Wilson’s performance Monday of “Sail On, Sailor,” it becomes too much to bear.
Beach Boys set list Monday at the Chicago Theatre:
1. Do It Again
2. Catch a Wave
4. Don't Back Down
5. Surfin' Safari
6. Surfer Girl
7. Please Let Me Wonder
10. Then I Kissed Her
11. Why Do Fools Fall in Love (Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers cover)
12. When I Grow Up (to be a Man)
13. Cottonfields (Lead Belly cover)
14. It’s OK
15. Little Honda
16. Be True to Your School
17. Disney Girls
18. Kiss Me, Baby
19. Don't Worry Baby
20. Little Deuce Coupe
22. Shut Down
23. I Get Around
24. Add Some Music to Your Day
25. California Dreamin’ (The Mamas & the Papas cover)
26. Sloop John B
27. Wouldn't It Be Nice
28. I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times
30. Sail On Sailor
31. All This is That
32. Heroes and Villains
33. That’s Why God Made the Radio
34. In My Room
35. God Only Knows
36. Good Vibrations
37. California Girls
38. Help Me Rhonda
39. Rock and Roll Music (Chuck Berry cover)
40. Do You Wanna Dance? (Bobby Freeman cover)
41. Surfin' USA
43. Barbara Ann (The Regents cover)
44. Fun Fun Fun
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