On the day before his 74th birthday, my roommate Christopher Kain and I saw the incomparable Brian Wilson perform at Tanglewood. This performance saw Wilson and an 11-piece band, which included original Beach Boy Al Jardine and latter day Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin, perform Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys’ landmark album, in its entirety. This tour marks the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds’ release.
In his 2005 book about Pet Sounds for Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series, Wall Street Journal music critic Jim Fusilli wrote of its resonance for both Wilson and the listener:
Brian needed to find a place to hide, a place of comfort and solace — his own somewhere else. California wouldn’t do, at least not 3701 West 119th Street, Hawthorne, California. Too young to flee, he found his somewhere else in music, his increasingly and occasionally brilliant music. When he went deep, deep, deep into his heart and mind for his music, he found Pet Sounds, a miraculous and often painful expression of a young man’s desire to find love, acceptance, and tranquility, an expression infused with a sense of dread that a place where such things are available in abundance does not exist.
The miracle of Pet Sounds lies in its music and lyrics — which are at the same time simple and dazzlingly complex — as well as in its haunting afterglow. It is an album that insinuates itself deep into the listener’s mind because it is not only about Brian’s fears and aspirations, dreams and disappointments; it is about the listener’s too.
Pet Sounds is about me and you, and no child, woman, or man with a whit of sensitivity and self-knowledge who has experienced, or anticipates experiencing, the inevitable arcs of life can fail to recognize this in the work. Nor can anyone of that disposition fail to be changed, or at least moved, by what it reveals.
It certainly moved Paul McCartney. If not for Pet Sounds would there have been Sgt. Pepper?
Wilson had performed Pet Sounds at Symphony Hall with the Boston Symphony Orchestra the previous two nights. However, those performances sold out quickly. Although it would require a 130-mile drive to Lenox, Massachusetts, this was too good an opportunity for us to pass up. God only knows if we would ever get another chance to see Brian Wilson in concert. It is easy to see why Tanglewood, located in the heart of the Berkshires, has been the summer home for the BSO for nearly eight decades. Yet strangely the BSO would not accompany Wilson at this Sunday afternoon concert.
Christopher and I also came close to not being in attendance. Because of a traffic jam on I-90 West in which we competed with vehicles proceeding to New York on I-84, we arrived only minutes before Wilson, who had to be helped onto the stage, and his band began their performance.
Even with the availability of state of the art technology, the complex arrangements of Pet Sounds and much of Wilson’s music present a challenge during live performance, particularly at an outdoor venue with poor sound quality. This would plague Wilson’s opening number “Heroes & Villains” so much that a sound check would be done immediately after by playing the chorus of Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.”
Wilson and company would struggle through “California Girls,” “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “You’re So Good to Me” before Wilson said he would play an “easy ballad for you.” That easy ballad was “In My Room” which could be said to have been a precursor to Pet Sounds. The band would hit its stride with the vocal harmonies on “In My Room.” Wilson then announced he would perform “Surfer Girl,” the first song he wrote at the age of 19. It earned Wilson his first standing ovation of the afternoon.
The mike was turned over to Al Jardine so he could introduce his son Matthew who would sing lead on “Don’t Worry Baby” (as Wilson can no longer sing high notes). In addition to the younger Jardine’s vocals, Nicky Wonder of the Wondermints provided a stirring guitar solo. The Wondermints have collaborated with Wilson on his studio albums and tours for more than 15 years and have been instrumental in Wilson’s musical renaissance.
The elder Jardine, now 73, would get the spotlight for “Wake the World,” a song he co-wrote with Wilson for their 1968 album Friends. Jardine’s voice sounds quite good and it is good that at least one original Beach Boy is supportive of Wilson’s artistic and musical ambitions. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Mike Love. However, this did not prevent Wilson from performing “Add Some Music to Your Day,” a song Wilson co-wrote with Love for their 1970 album Sunflower.
After asking the audience if they had seen the movie Love and Mercy (Christopher and I certainly have), Wilson then dedicated “One Kind of Love” to his wife Melinda, the woman credited for rescuing Wilson from the clutches of his disgraced therapist Dr. Eugene Landy nearly 25 years ago. Wilson would lighten the mood by asking the audience to join him in singing “Row, Row Your Boat” before launching into a rousing rendition “I Get Around.”
The first half would end with the spotlight being given to Blondie Chaplin, who by the way, is not blond. But Wilson does consider him a “lordly giant.” The South African born Chaplin, who has collaborated with both the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, gave an energetic performance of “Wild Honey” followed by “Sail On Sailor,” which happens to be my favorite Beach Boys song.
During intermission, Christopher and I explored the grounds at Tanglewood and gazed upon the Berkshires in all their glory. Most Boston-area residents vacation on the Cape or in Maine, as evidenced by all the New York and Connecticut license plates we saw in the lot. The Berkshires might not be on the ocean, but it is every bit as beautiful.
So too is Pet Sounds. Matthew Jardine’s vocals returned to the spotlight on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” A funny moment occurred when the audience applauded “You Still Believe in Me” not realizing it hadn’t concluded. This often happens with Beatles songs. As usual, Wilson finds himself in the best of musical company.
The false sense of security and serenity Wilson lulled the audience into on “Don’t Talk (Put Your Hands on My Shoulder)” was shattered by the drums which begin “I’m Waiting for the Day.” This shattering was done by percussionist Nelson Bragg who very much lives up to his name. Wilson then advised the audience there would be “no voices” on “Let’s Go Away for Awhile.” There was no singing, but there was a sensational saxophone solo by Paul Von Mertens.
While Pet Sounds is sometimes thought of as a Brian Wilson solo album, he is quick to credit Al Jardine for bringing the traditional Bahamian folk song “Sloop John B” (which had been popularized by the Kingston Trio in the late ’50s) to his attention. It is my second favorite Beach Boys song and one I have played on jukeboxes at bars on both sides of the Atlantic. I guess it’s an unusual enough selection because when I have, a woman will invariably ask if there is anything bothering me. Well, not anymore.
Given the influence Pet Sounds on Paul McCartney, there is little reason to doubt Wilson when he says that “God Only Knows” is Macca’s favorite song. It may very well have been the audience’s favorite as Wilson would receive his second standing ovation of the afternoon.
The Jardines would get the spotlight on “I Know There’s an Answer,” but Wilson’s mood changed after “Here Today.” He asked the audience with some irritation in his voice, “Do you wanna go home or do you want another song?” I did notice there were people leaving the show, perhaps to beat the traffic. It could have also been there was a lot of talking in certain sections of the audience that wasn’t paying attention to what was going on stage. Or perhaps Wilson was tired on a hot day having played three shows in less than 48 hours, because his voice was beginning to strain.
Wilson would again tell the audience “no voices” for the album’s title track. This gave Wilson an opportunity to rest his voice and for the band to shine, particularly Wonder on guitar and Van Mertens on sax. Wilson’s voice recovered sufficiently for “Caroline No” to give Pet Sounds a proper send off with train whistles and dog barks included.
Those who left the show early lost out. They missed Von Mertens introducing each member of the band. Aside from introducing the audience to the backbone of Wilson’s music, it gave Wilson more time to rest. Now most bands will do a two-song encore. Wilson performed seven. It was a remarkably generous thing to do given his less than stellar physical condition. That condition undoubtedly improved with the audience’s stoked reaction upon hearing the first few bars “Good Vibrations.” Although Wilson’s voice remained strained, the crowd was in a good mood and dancing.
This good mood continued with “All Summer Long,” “Help Me Rhonda” (with Al Jardine on lead vocals) and “Barbara Ann.” By “Surfin’ USA,” Wilson’s voice had recovered again. While “Fun, Fun, Fun” was playing, I noticed a Dad and daughter dancing along. When she passed me I saw her sing the words, “And Daddy took the T-Bird away.” A lot has changed in America in half a century, but not everything.
Of course, good times can’t last forever. The afternoon concluded with Wilson mellowing down the mood and singing “Love and Mercy.”
Brian Wilson will be taking a break for a couple of weeks. It struck me as unusual that Wilson would take a break as summer officially begins. But rest assured. Wilson has 56 dates scheduled through the middle of October. These dates will take Wilson, the Jardines, Chaplin and company throughout the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Denmark and even Iceland.
Wilson wants to continue to tour for as long as he can. But if you want to hear his masterpiece, it would be best to check him out this summer or fall. Because after this Brian Wilson will put Pet Sounds to sleep.