Brian Wilson review – frail Beach Boy isn't made for these times

Hammersmith Apollo, London
The band are fantastic, the songs often euphoric – but Brian Wilson is a diminished and troubling presence at the heart of this Beach Boys revue

It is a sobering thought that there are people in tonight’s audience who clearly weren’t born when Brian Wilson started playing Pet Sounds in concert, let alone when the Beach Boys released their legendary 1966 album. It was 15 years ago that Wilson first performed Pet Sounds live in London, at a Royal Festival Hall show received with a kind of boggling, delighted incredulity by an audience who couldn’t quite believe that, after decades of mental illness and drug abuse, Wilson’s health was apparently restored enough to helm a note-perfect live rendition of his complex, nuanced masterpiece.

And yet, here we are, a decade and a half on, ostensibly gathered to hear the final London airing of Pet Sounds in its entirety. A cynical voice might point out that was supposed to happen last year, when Wilson sold out three nights at the London Palladium and one at the Royal Albert Hall on the grounds that he was retiring live performances of the album on the occasion of its 50th birthday.

Beach Boy Al Jardine joined WIlson’s band four years ago.
Beach Boy Al Jardine joined WIlson’s band four years ago. Photograph: Robin Little/Redferns

A great deal has changed over the intervening years, from band personnel (the unending soap opera of the Beach Boys’ career means there now are more original members in Brian Wilson’s touring ensemble than in the extant version of the Beach Boys, founder Al Jardine having joined the former’s ranks four years ago) to Brian Wilson’s voice, which has audibly deteriorated. Tonight, it’s more or less in tune, but unclear and halting, as if he’s struggling for breath. Most of the vocal heavy lifting is dealt with by Jardine’s son, Matt, a man possessed with a falsetto good enough to mimic not just Brian but also his late brother Carl, the most angelic-sounding Beach Boy of all.

But the biggest change might be that the sight of Wilson on stage in Britain has become commonplace, whether performing Pet Sounds or its abandoned follow-up Smile, or his latterday song-cycle That Lucky Old Sun, or – if you were unlucky – his 2010 album of Gershwin standards reconfigured to sound like old Beach Boys songs. As the novelty of seeing one of rock music’s most mythic figures in the flesh has worn off, so the criticism has got louder. New albums have been greeted with reactions ranging from faint praise to yells of horror. Fans who note how uncomfortable Wilson frequently looks on stage have wondered aloud whether he should be there at all, let alone performing dozens of gigs a year in his mid-70s. The spectre of an artist who’s milking it – or a larger organisation that’s manipulating a vulnerable man in order to milk it – has been both invoked and hotly denied.

Watching events unfold tonight, you see and hear both sides of the argument. Wilson’s band sound fantastic – they have played Pet Sounds live so often, it’s easy to forget what a mammoth task playing Pet Sounds live is, although the intricacy of the harmonies on You Still Believe in Me provides a striking reminder. The current state of Wilson’s voice adds a different power and poignancy to the album’s songs of lost innocence and regret: That’s Not Me and I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times were always more reflective and world-weary than any song written by a 24-year-old should be. And the quality of the music is largely inarguable, even if the attempts to dig out fan-pleasing obscurities amid the deathless hits go from the sublime – a suite of lesser-known tracks from 1967’s Wild Honey, including an astonishingly lovely version of Let the Wind Blow – to the ridiculous: 1965’s Salt Lake City is the kind of song that Wilson devotees can pull out when people protest that his latterday material is hokey and embarrassing in order to prove that, even at the zenith of the Beach Boys’ fame, he could be a bit like that. “They got the sun in the summer, and in the wintertime, the skiin’ is great!” it offers, as if constructed by the local tourist board. Equally, it’s hard to ignore the eagerness with which Wilson runs off stage the minute his final vocal duty is dispatched – he’s up and off three-quarters of the way through Caroline No – or the way his face seems to naturally arrange itself into a troublingly blank expression.

The result is a strange show that swings from moments of exhilarating euphoria – from California Girls’s autumnal introduction to the thrillingly explosive Here Today, and sometime Beach Boys guitarist Blondie Chaplin’s star turn on Sail On Sailor – to moments of disquiet. When Wilson isn’t singing, he looks like he isn’t sure what he’s doing up there, a feeling that’s oddly infectious. Ultimately, the thrilling moments triumph over the disquieting ones, but it’s a very strange Brian Wilson fan indeed who can see him live without feeling beset by doubts.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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