What kind of musical genius leads his audience in a round of "Row Row Row Your Boat" in the middle of the performance? What kind of musical genius sits at a keyboard for an entire concert yet plays nary a note on it all evening long? What kind of musical genius puts on a show in which the most notable thing to a concert-goer who has been privileged to see him several times before is that he didn't use a teleprompter to remember the lyrics?
The answer, my friend, is Brian Wilson. The pre-eminent genius of popular music over the last half-century. A man who by all that's right and holy ought to have died from massive drug abuse three decades ago, yet has outlived his two younger brothers. A man who has battled mental illness since about 1965, and continues to require medication and therapy to ignore voices in his head, and who has been a major worldwide concert attraction for the last 10 years despite an almost paralyzing anxiety that overtakes him prior to taking the stage each night.
Any true Brian Wilson fan thinks of himself as a collaborator in a way. Brian Wilson fans not only love his music, they love him. They are protective of him. They defend him in conversation and they support him with their dollars and voices. My sense is that they are more likely than not to identify as Brian Wilson fans rather than Beach Boys fans, though it is impossible to be one and not the other. Certainly that is the case with me. The first few tours that Brian did exhausted me, because I spent so much psychic energy from the audience sending him good vibrations and praying that he didn't make a mistake, or that if he made a mistake that it didn't upset him or throw him off. It seems in retrospect that I held my breath for entire shows, though I know I was singing along heartily. But when a hero is so fragile, when you're so invested in both the art and its source, when your own healing is bound up with his, you willingly carry such a responsibility.
After a while, though, I realized that Brian is strong and still has it. He's not just a dancing bear brought out to amuse; the man, despite his many issues, functions at a high level musically and as an individual. He doesn't operate at his '65-'67 peak, but that's an unrealistic expectation. Neither does Dylan or McCartney, and their best years occurred in that time period as well, IMO. His solo albums over the last few years, especially the long-awaited completion and release of SMiLE in 2004 – intended to be the Beach Boys' 1967 follow-up to Pet Sounds, it was rumored at the time to be superior to Sgt. Pepper – prove that he remains a uniquely capable and creative composer, arranger, and producer. A new ambitious suite-like work, That Lucky Old Sun, will be released in September.
Which leads me to what is now last night's performance (I have not yet retired for the evening so it still feels like today). In spite of having a new album in the can, only two tracks were previewed; the rest of the show was a "greatest hits" repertoire. Given that Brian essentially occupies his own chapter of the Great American Songbook (when an enthusiastic crowd sings along with songs composed 45 years ago, the works cease to be "oldies" and must be considered canonical), that's certainly nothing to complain about. But in recent years, Brian has performed Pet Sounds or SMiLE in their entirety, which were nothing less than transcendent events. So for me, anyway, the concert was fun and entertaining, and provided the true thrill of seeing my hero (looking and sounding very well) receive all the adoration he's always deserved; yet it wasn't a groundbreaking performance. It was great, but not his best. And while he sounded good (though he wasn't miked well), at age 66 he has given up singing certain songs. Most notably, it's something to pause about that he has barely even a harmony part to sing on his brilliant 1964 ballad, "Don't Worry Baby," which he sang so beautifully back in the day.
His band is composed of exceptional singers and musicians. This tour, several players are missing various shows because of other commitments. The band size has fluctuated; Scott Bennett, who usually plays keyboards, vibes, and guitar, was the drummer a few nights ago. The foxy female singer, Taylor Mills, was absent, to the disappointment of the male audience members. Yet it is a testament to the quality of the music itself that all those perfect melodies and harmonies ring true regardless of the how the band is constructed any given night.
I don't have a set list top of mind at the moment (it's 1:30am), but highlights were the Pet Sounds three-fer of "Sloop John B," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," and "God Only Knows;" homages to his inspirations Phil Spector ("Then I Kissed Her") and Chuck Berry ("Johnny B. Goode"); and two 1965 chestnuts, "California Girls" and "Help Me Rhonda" that, as good as they are in their original studio versions, somehow come to life in concert in such a way that it seems they can only exist in the moment, night after night, with an audience supplying their own backgrounds.
And, getting back to my open, it was exciting and positive that Brian didn't use a teleprompter. Not only did it prove his abilities to remember the words to all those songs (you can fit a bunch of two- and three-minute songs in a 90-minute performance), but it enabled him to look out more at the audience, to see the effect his music has on people, cheering, dancing, singing along to these little pieces of art that have comprised the soundtrack to our lives for so many years. At age 45, I have been a Brian Wilson fan for 32 years. That's a long time to love someone. And plenty of time to be grateful that he somehow has survived, improbably has endured, and remarkably remains inspiring.