Live: Brian Wilson at Hard Rock Live, August 5

Brian Wilson

Hard Rock Live, Hollywood
August 5, 2011

What becomes a legend most? In the case of Brian Wilson's performance Friday night at Hard Rock Live, it's somewhat hard to say. 

Cynics might deride the fact that at age 69, Brian still portends to be a battered soul. Sitting at his keyboard Friday night and playing to a rapt crowd, he seemed stiff and somewhat robotic, his arms either dangling by his side or swinging with exaggerated gestures, his hands making only occasional contact with the keys.

Clearly, the years have taken their toll. Overweight, looking frumpy,

and often staring expressionless (some might say even he appeared

catatonic), his comments between songs lacked spontaneity and appeared

perfunctory ("This is a Chuck Berry thing we do," he said blankly while

introducing "Dance Dance Dance," and "This is the first thing I ever

wrote," he mentioned prior to "Surfer Girl"). Likewise, he seems only a

bit player relative to his superb band, which basically does all the

heavy lifting in terms of fleshing out those gorgeous arrangements,

supplying the lush harmonies and singing the falsettos that Wilson can

no longer muster. It's their show to carry, and by ceding the spotlight,

Brian often seems a figurehead, there to receive due homage. There were

some songs where he rarely sang at all, and only half that found

playing... and when he did doodle at the keys, the sound was nearly

inaudible. Even the musician intros were left to another -- guitarist

Jeffrey Foskett, the show's de facto emcee.

Still, none of that seemed to matter to diehard devotees. And for good reason. Wilson's shell-shocked man/child persona is as much a part of his famous persona as the incredible, heartfelt "teenage anthems to God" he created and composed over the last half century. Despite his battles with drugs, depression and personal despair -- the cruel manipulations of his overbearing father Murray, the loss of his two brothers Dennis and Carl, his retreat from the world and subsequent subversion of personal psychiatrist and Svengali, Dr. Eugene Landy -- Wilson's dedication to his muse and determination to create those exceptional sounds are more than cause for admiration. One of the greatest musical creators and composers of the past half century, he's long since earned due reverence, despite the tolls taken on his psyche. 

Besides, it's the music that matters most, and Friday night at the Hard Rock, it was the songs -- those glorious age of innocence incantations -- that shone oh-so brightly. Culling well over two-dozen Beach Boys classics and four from his latest album, Reimagines Gershwin (vigorously plugged on at least a couple of occasions), Wilson and his band generously covered several decades of his classic catalogue. While there were some who would rue the exclusion of, say, "Caroline No" or "Surf's Up" or "In My Room," the inclusion of such classics as "Help Me Rhonda," "California Girls," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Darlin'" and, above all, "God Only Knows," perhaps the most beautiful song ever added to the pop lexicon, more than made up for any deficiencies. Likewise, live performances of his two most adventurous min suites, "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains" continue to dazzle well over 40 years on.

As mentioned earlier, due credit has to go to the band itself, which long since has negated any need for an alternate reunion of the Beach Boys, given the fact that Dennis and Carl have passed on, Al Jardine has ventured out on his own (check out last year's superb solo album, A Postcard From California), and the current Beach Boys incarnation fronted by Mike Love and Bruce Johnston is little more than a cover outfit. Wilson's current ten piece ensemble -- Wilson, Foskett, keyboardist Darian Sahanaja, percussionist Nelson Bragg, drummer (and Palm Beach resident) Mike D'Amico, guitarist Nick Walusko, multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gergory, bassist Brett Simon, keyboardist Scott Bennett and Paul Mertens on horns -- are more a part of Wilson's collaborative process than the Beach Boys in their prime, and their ability to fill in all the nuances, nooks and crannies of those elaborate arrangements Wilson originally labored over so feverishly in the studio and then embellish them accordingly is a marvel to behold.

The remarkable take on Gershwin's "I Got Plenty of Nothin'," with the musicians switching from banjos to whistles to other nutty accoutrements, was like peering on one of those infamous Smile sessions. Add the overwhelming sway of nostalgia (songs like "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "Help Me Rhonda" still ripple through teenage memories), and the songs can't help but stamp an indelible impression.

As mentioned, Wilson himself was fairly stoic the entire time, and looked rather fragile as he lumbered off during the break and later, shuffled back for the encore, giving a grand bow before he unceremoniously shuffled off the stage. An old school showman, he may be living off his legend, but he still seems clearly in touch with his music, especially when the band's in full stride. Songs end with grand flourishes and the set list is arranged as an oldies show, one clearly designed to give his audience all they might desire. 

Just for a moment, when he strapped on his bass during the encore, he actually looked like the Beach Boy Brian of old. Despite his foibles, quirks and eccentricities, the audience still gets the man they know and love. Ultimately, it's the opportunity to witness genius -- in all his rumpled glory, through past, present and for all time -- that made that two hour encounter so memorable and amazing. 

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: It was a bit disappointing -- and surprising -- that the final encore didn't include "Love and Mercy," Brian's solo swansong. 

Random detail:
Several members of Wilson's band moonlight as the Wondermints, an exceptional outfit that takes it cues from the Beach Boys' signature sound. 

By the way: Having seen Wilson several years ago and listening to his superb live album recorded live at the Roxy Theatre a decade ago, Wilson's routine hasn't changed much. A silly comment requesting a show of cigarette lighters is still in the show ten years on! 

Set List
California Girls
Dance Dance Dance 
Catch a Wave 
Little Deuce Coup 
Surfer Girl 
Please Let Me Wonder 
Row Row Row Your Boat 
Don't Worry Baby 
Salt Lake City 
Do You Wanna Dance 
Do It Again 
I Get Around -- Intermission -- 
I Got Plenty of Nothin' (instrumental) 
They Can't Take That Away From Me 
I Got Rhythm 
Nothing But Love 
Add Some Music To Your Day 
The Little Girl I Once Knew 
Sail On Sailor 
Sloop John B 
Wouldn't It Be Nice 
God Only Knows 
Heroes and Villains 
Good Vibrations 
-- Encore -- 
Johnny B Goode 
Help Me Rhonda 
Barbara Ann 
Surfin' USA 
Fun Fun Fun

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Lee Zimmerman