Brian Wilson was touring again, and I had to be there. It was a sad affair. He could barely move; they had to help him on stage. And singing, forget about it. It was more of a rough growl. And his bass guitar, I suspect the soundman had it turned off. The best he could do was fake his way through the bridge of Surfer Girl. Gone was the expressive smooth vocal and evocative falsetto of the 1960s and early ‘70s Beach Boys.
And I had that experience with Brian Wilson in . . . the summer of 1978. Brian’s performance this summer with his fabulous backup band, Wondermints, and former Beach Boys bandmates Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin was in many ways similar, but also utterly different.
Unlike that summer of ‘78 show at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, this one – for all the similarities – was anything but sad. Billed as Brian Wilson’s greatest hits, it was really a dash of golden memory and a reason to smile at the moments – however fleeting – when his voice edged up to the magic it has always contained.
Watching this show – though, surely, I already knew this at some level – brought home just how fabulous Brian Wilson was. Let’s face it – he was the Beach Boys, one of the greatest bands ever to play rock and roll music. Maybe they weren’t the Beatles, but Brian had no John, Paul and George or even Ringo. We used to think, oh Brian writes and produces, but the Boys have those great voices that make it true. Ah, No. That was Sonny and Cher. Brian was the Beach Boys. There is nothing any of them ever did that Brian could not have done better himself, including singing all the parts.
If you don’t want to trust me on that, go back and listen to “Wind Chimes” or “Wonderful” from the original Smile recordings, and then listen to the versions released by The Beach Boys on Smiley Smile, largely without Brian’s assistance. Or listen to “Melt Away” from Brian’s first solo album. I’m not saying Dennis didn’t have talent, or that the other guys couldn’t sing. He did and, they could. It is just that Brian didn’t need any of them. He carried them. Made them rich and famous. And we all know how they paid him back.
It’s different now, of course. Darian Sahanaja, for more than a quarter century, has been the kind of brother to Brian Wilson that he never had in his youth. Sahanaja, a fabulous singer and keyboard player, leads Wondermints, a band that’s part surf music and part Wrecking Crew. Finally, Brian had a band able to perform his music in a way that the Beach Boys never could.
Brian is now, as he has been since the ‘90s, surrounded with perfection. Every note comes through with energy, spirit and soul of a sort that Mike Love or even Carl Wilson would not have recognized if it hit them in the face. And Matt Jardine, Al’s son who has sung falsetto for the Beach Boys and now the Wondermints for decades, tops off a vocal explosion that approaches the Boys at their peak.
Still, wonderful as Matt Jardine is, when he actually tries to take the lead on a classic song originally sung by Brian, well, it’s nice but also the saddest moment of the evening. “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” are the two I remember. Hearing Matt take them on brings home just how special Brian was. There’s a timbre, a tonality to Brian’s voice that was just so full – even in falsetto. No one can match it.
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” did provide a heartwarming – though probably scripted – moment. Brian, who didn’t talk much, says to Al, “you take the verses on this one, and I’ll take the bridge.” Al laughs and responds, “not me, let’s let Matt handle it.” And Brian chirps, “sure pass it off on your son.” What a sweet moment.
The show opened with a bevy of early 60’s Beach Boys classics, though refreshingly not all hits. Yes, they did “California Girls,” “I Get Around,” “Surfer Girl,” and “Little Deuce Coup.” But they also did wonderful somewhat-lesser-known tracks like “In My Room,” “Little Honda,” and even “Salt Lake City.” Brian’s vocals – generally taking Mike’s part – were virtually spoken word. But every so often, you’d catch just a glimpse of what once was. And that made it all worth it.
After carrying the vocals – such as they were – for nine straight songs, Brian passed the torch to Al Jardine for “Wake the World” and then Brian did “Add Some Music to Your Day,” two classics from the early ‘70s Beach Boys, an era that the band is now celebrating with a recently released box set, including loads of outtakes.
Next, Brian introduced Matt Jardine to sing “Don’t Worry Baby.” More successful was Sahanaja’s rendition of “Darlin’,” probably because Carl had done the original vocal. So, it was easier to live up to it. After a renddition of “Do You Wanna Dance,” we were in for a treat.
Blondie Chaplin took center stage. If you don’t know, Chaplin led a South African band in the early ‘70s called Flame. Seeking to add a cool factor that the Beach Boys lacked at the time, Carl Wilson recruited Blondie and his drummer Rickie Fatar to join the the band. Together they recorded a couple of the Beach Boys least memorable – though they have their moments – albums and a series of strong live performances memorialized on The Beach Boys in Concert album. Then, the Boys unceremoniously dumped Blondie and Rickie.
Chaplin re-surfaced in different contexts throughout the years, including as a backup singer on Rolling Stones tours. More recently, he has toured regularly with Brian Wilson. His contributions are always a highlight of the show. But this time, he was extraordinary. Although only a few years younger than Wilson, Chaplin’s voice remains full and soulful as ever. And he plays a mean guitar.
Chaplin performed a mini-set of three early 70s Beach Boys classics, only one of which he’d sung back in the day. In retrospect, they should have given him all three! Though in fairness to Carl, who was pretty much running the Beach Boys show at the time, two of the songs were released before Blondie joined the band.
First up was Carl’s fabulous “Feel Flows” from the 1972 Surf’s Up album. Chaplin’s fender guitar sparkled adding just the right spice to his soul-infused vocal that transformed this song into something even more special than it was. Next up, Chaplin tackled Carl’s companion song from the Surf’s Up album, “Long Promised Road,” the title given to the recent box set of material from that era. Chaplin’s voice soared, and we all thought to ourselves, it’s Blondie’s band now. The third song in his trio – and the only one that Chaplin had sung originally – would be Brian’s “Sail on Sailor.” But first, he had to strap on his Les Paul because that’s what it took to fly away.
After that, the show was over, but the band kept playing. While nothing could top what Chaplin had just done, we all had a good time dancing to the rest of the show. Brian took lead vocal again on “It’s OK,” an obscure mid-‘70s top 40 hit. Does anyone other than Brian Wilson have obscure top-40 hits? He followed that with “Do it Again.” He was singing Mike’s parts, but it seemed that his voice was growing, however slightly, toward actual singing.
A mini-set of Pet Sounds era classics and a trio of early ‘60s monster hits led to the finale of “Love and Mercy,” which has become something of a theme song for solo-era Brian Wilson. In some ways, he sounded best on this, the very last song of the night. Maybe because he knew he didn’t need to keep anything in reserve.
As the band left the stage, you couldn’t help but think of The Irishman. From afar, the band members had an aura of eternal youth. But when they all moved to leave the stage, you could see their age. But it didn’t matter. They’d done it again. We could wistfully think – what could have been if Brian had met these guys when he was younger. Or we can relish that he met them when he did, reunited with Al and Blondie, and together they have brought us (and hopefully themselves) incomparable joy.
You can get more information and find tour dates on Brian Wilson’s website.