Brian Wilson review – still surf pop’s golden Boy

Hammersmith Apollo, London
The great Beach Boy looks frail but sounds fantastic, 17 months into his farewell tour

It’s the sort of gig where you might stumble over the feet of Peter Blake while trying to find your seat. The British pop artist infamously designed the sleeve to the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the landmark 1967 album allegedly inspired in part by Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys’ own groundbreaker of the previous year. (Infamously, because Blake only earned £200 from one of the most celebrated visuals of the 20th century.)

It’s the sort of gig where, in order to remain comfortable, you need to feel relatively satisfied that it’s in Brian Wilson’s best interests to be on stage, still touring Pet Sounds, 17 months into a 50th anniversary-cum-farewell tour that finally concludes in California in October. Tonight, three generous sets span both hits and deep cuts, the album itself and, finally, high jinks centred around girls’ names: Rhonda, Barbara Ann.

Roughly 19 years into a late-life reflowering, after decades lost to addiction, ill health and abuse by his erstwhile “therapist”, Wilson, 75, still sings the lines within his vocal range with some gusto. The role of frontman is often delegated to fellow Beach Boy Al Jardine. The angelic vocal parts go to Matthew Jardine, his son, born the same year as Pet Sounds.

Nine-part harmonies routinely cascade from this superlative band, also busy with theremins, clarinets, marimbas, bass harmonicas and French horns. On keys, “musical secretary” Darian Sahanaja is the glue that joins many of Wilson’s latterday tours and the 2004 completion of the lost album, Smile. A little disreputability is lent by special guest Blondie Chaplin, whose 1972-3 stint in the Beach Boys gave way to a longer haul touring with the Rolling Stones. His Jagger strut and Richards fretting belies that sympatico. Chaplin contributes to a run of songs – Feel Flows, Wild Honey and his vamped Sail On, Sailor – that gives the setlist grit and soul.

Brian Wilson and band at the Hammersmith Apollo.
Brian Wilson and his deluxe band at the Hammersmith Apollo. Photograph: Richard Isaac/Rex/Shutterstock

Many fans have seen this tour more than once. Of particular interest to them are rarities such as Let Him Run Wild (from 1965). Intriguingly, Wilson seems to ignore the last line of I’d Love Just Once to See You (“… in the nude”), from 1967’s Wild Honey. Is it an artistic choice? Does he just forget? It’s unclear.

Wilson’s hands, meanwhile, move across the piano at appropriate times or tap out a beat on his thigh. Most importantly, though, this frail legend reading from a teleprompter still seems game to witness his bittersweet, elegiac album being adored 51 years on.

At the time, Capitol Records was suspicious of its efflorescent fantasias and overwrought emotion and tried to bury Pet Sounds with a Beach Boys surf hits compilation. For the past 20 years or so, it has periodically been held up as the greatest album ever made, although changing tastes regularly rejig this list.

The ongoing lionisation of baby-boomer cultural artefacts can, frankly, be a little enervating. But as Wilson speak-sings, trading lines back and forth with Matt Jardine, it’s hard not to be moved by this rendition of Pet Sounds. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) finds the two singing “listen, listen, listen” in poignant unison.

The instrumentals – Let’s Go Away for Awhile and Pet Sounds – transform when 11 live musicians fill a hall with them. Amazing enough in its recorded state, God Only Knows evolves into a complex round, with most members of the band pitching in. On these Pet Sounds go – yearning, hurting, descanting.

You return to earth with a bump for an encore packed with “fun, fun, fun” and people doing “surf arms”. But Wilson, Jardine and the band close with a song from Wilson’s eponymous solo album from 1988. Love and Mercy is relatively stripped back. Wilson, eternally the observant outsider, sings of the violence, hurt and loneliness he sees, themes that definitely resonate in 2017.

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Kitty Empire

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