NEW YORK -- Finally out on his first solo tour -- 34 years after he stopped
performing live with the Beach Boys because of mental-health problems -- Brian Wilson
has a lot to talk about.
Friday night he sat at a keyboard that he played only sparingly while singing some of the
Beach Boys' best-known hits along with several songs from their groundbreaking 1966
album Pet Sounds.
The show at the Beacon Theater was the fifth show of Wilson's tour, on which he's
accompanied by a 12-piece band that includes the Los Angeles power-pop combo the
It was immediately clear that the multitalented Wilson, who continued to write, produce
and arrange the Beach Boys' best-known records long after he stopped touring with
them, isn't the singer he used to be -- he's lost a step in the high end of his range.
But it was just as obvious that after decades of emotional trouble and reclusion he
remains a vital artist. The packed house at the Beacon looked past whatever limitations
there were and roared its approval all night as he sang such Beach Boys hits as "Help
Me Rhonda," "Surfin' U.S.A." and "Wouldn't It Be Nice."
The all-black-clad Wilson, who turned 57 two days after the show, leaned on an electric
piano -- he didn't seem to play it all that much -- and clapped his hands and cracked his
knuckles at the end of most numbers.
But his modesty and obvious pleasure with the loud applause he received were
endearing in that they're so rare among rock stars. Wilson's manner was more akin to a
guy performing for a gathering of friends in his living room.
Near the end of the night, during a rendition of the recent solo single "Your Imagination,"
he sang, "I miss the way that I used to call the shots around here" -- explaining perhaps
what lured him back to the stage.
Wilson, whose appearance onstage was preceded by the showing of a biographical
video, was stiff and out-of-tune for the opening number, the 1965 single "The Little Girl I
Once Knew." And it was immediately apparent he would rely on his large band to provide flash and power to
The band included keyboardist Joe Thomas -- who produced Wilson's
Imagination (1998) -- as well as a saxophonist, bassist, drummer, percussionist, several
guitarists and three backing vocalists.
Wilson's brief stories added to his awkward appeal throughout the show. He prefaced
"Surfer Girl" by saying, "The very first song I ever wrote, I wrote in my car." His
performance of that one demonstrated that despite his inability to hit high notes, Wilson's
voice still sounds fine in its lower register.
"I don't know if you remember, but me and my brothers used to sing together in our
bedroom," he said before launching into the classic "In My Room." The fact that Beach
Boys singer/guitarist Carl Wilson died last year, and drummer Dennis Wilson died in
1983, rendered the song more poignant than ever.
Later Wilson dedicated the sad "Lay Down Burden" (
HREF="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get-music/Wilson,_Brian/Lay_Down_Burden.ram">RealAudio excerpt), from
Imagination, "to my brother Carl."
Psychedelic lighting that evoked the '60s enveloped the stage during a pair of
instrumentals from Pet Sounds -- the title track and "Let's Go Away for Awhile." But
Wilson didn't play on either; he sat on his piano stool while the band attempted to
re-create the original orchestral arrangements.
After an intermission Wilson seemed more at ease. He had the crowd up on its feet
clapping during "Sloop John B" -- a traditional folk song the Beach Boys recorded for
Pet Sounds -- and the 1967 single "Darlin'," which Wilson described as "the best
song [the Beach Boys] ever did."
But probably the moment that best evoked the intricate majesty of the Beach Boys' music
was the perfect harmonizing between Wilson and band on "God Only Knows" (
HREF="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get-music/Beach_Boys,_The/God_Only_Knows.ram">RealAudio excerpt), another
Pet Sounds song, originally sung by Carl Wilson.
An encore set was highlighted by the ballad "Caroline, No" (
HREF="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get-music/Beach_Boys,_The/Caroline_No.ram">RealAudio excerpt) and the
bouncy rockers "Barbara Ann" and "Fun Fun Fun," during which the band played tightly
and kept the house jumping. Wilson capped it all off amid a thunderous ovation with the
gentle "Love and Mercy," a single from his 1988 solo debut.
"It was fun," 51-year-old Ankara Stone of Manhattan said. "But [Wilson] was probably a
shadow of what he once was."
"It's a real studio thing with him," a 42-year-old New Yorker who identified himself only as
Richard S. said, referring to the layers of sound that Wilson often overdubbed on record.
"But tonight was still great."