There’s a moment in the final episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” when Beverly Crusher has to decide if her former captain is senile or ready to save the universe again. “If Jean-Luc Picard wants to go sailing across the galaxy again on one last mission,” she proclaims, “I’m not going to be the one to say no.”
I suspect that’s the way many Beach Boys fans feel about Brian Wilson at 74 taking a final victory lap with the 50th anniversary tour of his “teenage symphony to God,” Pet Sounds. Wilson’s struggles with mental illness and substance abuse have become the stuff of legend (and film), and although he’s been touring and recording steadily since 2000, it was obvious at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on Friday that Wilson’s a shell of his former self.
His stage patter seems stiff and rehearsed. “This is a song I wrote a long time ago.” “Please be seated …” (and then, to a band member) “… what do they call that, a standing ovation?” The same lines repeated every night. (For instance, a shout out to the late Chuck Berry — a huge influence on the early Beach Boys — would have been appropriate, but alas not in the script.)
Similarly, Wilson sat behind his piano, facing the audience (not to the side as most pianists do), the better to hide the fact that for large parts of the concert, he sat with his hands in his lap and let others do the heavy lifting.
Fortunately, Wilson’s 10-piece band proved up to the task of duplicating not only the orchestral complexities of his magnum opus but the fun, fun, fun vibe of those early Beach Boys surf classics.
Granted, coming to see Pet Sounds and sitting through an opening set of “California Girls,” “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “I Get Around” and “Help Me, Rhonda” felt a little like making a reservation at Lutèce and being served lollipops and Cracker Jack for the appetizer. But clearly Wilson’s audience — which ranged from senior citizens to enthusiastic teenagers dancing in the aisles — came to hear those old surf, car and girl songs, and the harmonies on hits like “Surfer Girl” still inspire goosebumps.
The band featured as many as four guitarists and two keyboardists (in addition to Wilson’s piano) at one time, highlighted by the drum and percussion team of Mike D’Amico and Nelson Bragg, who injected energy and oomph into Wilson’s often flat, singsong vocals. Multi-instrumentalists Probyn Gregory and Paul Von Mertens added sax, flute, clarinet and oboe parts that helped re-create Pet Sounds‘ orchestral majesty, as well as stretching some of Wilson’s 2- and 3-minute pop songs into 4- and 5-minute singalongs.
Beach Boy Al Jardine remains at Wilson’s side and capably took turns on lead vocals throughout the night, but it was Jardine’s son Matthew who stole the show. Born in 1966 — ironically, the year of Pet Sounds‘ release — he nailed all those complex falsetto parts with a voice that eerily recalled the young Brian Wilson.
Guest star Blondie Chaplin, who toured with the Beach Boys in the early ‘70s, milked every moment he was onstage — coming out for several bizarre cameos to play “lead tambourine” and strut across the stage like the second coming of Mick Jagger, mangling an almost unrecognizable version of “Wild Honey,” and then re-creating his lead vocal on 1973’s “Sail On, Sailor.” The way he posed, grimaced, shimmied and hammed it up, more than one observer noted that it looked like he had wandered into the wrong concert.
By the time the band finished Pet Sounds (and its followup hit single, “Good Vibrations”), Wilson seemed drained, speaking more than singing his vocal parts through rote run-throughs of “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ USA” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” Was it nostalgic? Definitely. Fun? Sure. But by that point, the whole enterprise seemed more like one of those fundraising concerts on PBS in which a well-appointed cover band plays hits from ’60s and ’70s for the network’s baby boomer donors.
The concert ended with Wilson’s 1988 solo composition “Love and Mercy,” whose chorus summed up the evening’s entertainment:
Love and mercy, that’s what you need tonight
So, love and mercy to you and your friends tonight
Love and mercy is what Brian Wilson needs and deserves at this point in his career. And I’m certainly not going to be the one to say no.
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