Brian Wilson and Friends bring ‘Pet Sounds’ to Life

Live Review: Belk Theater, September 19, 2016 

mymbbj4y By Sean Titone Photos by Daniel Coston

September 20, 2016

“Did you come here tonight for some shitty, bad vibrations?” Brian Wilson, age 74, asked the sold out crowd Monday night at the Belk Theater at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

“No!” we screamed in unison, playing along with the music legend in our midst.

“Did you come here for some good vibrations?” Wilson asked.

“Yes!” the audience giddily responded, prompting the keyboardist standing next to Wilson to play the staccato, carnival-like organ notes that lead off “Good Vibrations,” arguably one of the most famous songs of all time. And thus began the encore of Wilson and his band’s nearly two hour performance.

clture brian wilson
Photo by Daniel Coston

But before I get to what Wilson would refer to as the “rock and roll” portion of the set, let’s talk about Pet Sounds, the landmark album he recorded with The Beach Boys fifty years ago when Wilson was only 24 years old and the reason we were all there to sing and dance in the aisles of the Belk Theater on a Monday night in Uptown Charlotte. Moody and lush, beautiful and weird, Pet Sounds is an album of astonishing power. It contains songs that have crossed oceans of time and space and still inspire modern musicians today. Its production, arrangements and instrumentation are considered unparalleled when held up against some of rock and roll’s most classic works and it even inspired The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Wilson’s legacy as one of popular music’s greatest songwriters was on full display when he performed Pet Sounds in its entirety, much to the delight of the multi-generational crowd in attendance.

With an 11-piece band that included long-time musical associates and fellow Beach Boys Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin in tow, Wilson sat stationary behind his grand piano, hands often at repose in his lap or hanging by his side, and he sang his songs of love, loneliness, youth, and heartbreak with equal parts indifference and genuine enthusiasm. The first hour consisted of music from throughout Wilson’s career, including numerous gems in his long and astounding pop discography like “I Get Around” (which weirdly makes me think of the 80s Disney film Flight of the Navigator every time I hear it), “Little Honda,” “In My Room,” and “Surfer Girl,” a melancholy shuffle that Wilson told us he wrote when he was only 19 years old. I’ll let that sink in for a second.

Photo by Daniel Coston

Closing out the first set, singer/guitarist/tambourine player extraordinaire Blondie Chaplin took center stage and elevated the proceedings with his wild and somewhat unhinged electric guitar playing, strutting back and forth across the stage like someone forty years his junior (he’s 65). Besides his tenure with the Beach Boys in the 70s, Chaplin spent a decade in the 90s and 2000s as a recording and touring member of the Rolling Stones and he also spent time playing with The Band. His showmanship and animated presence gave the show a nice burst of energy going into intermission.

After a 20-minute break, it was time for the main event. While some performers who’ve been in the game as long as Wilson like to rip the pages out of their songbook and re-interpret their music to keep things fresh, Wilson and his top-notch band chose to painstakingly recreate Pet Sounds’ rich, layered sound with every note precise and every vocal harmony perfectly in line. At 74 years of age, Wilson has long shown cracks in the facade of his vocal range, avoiding the high notes and falsettos that were once his trademark. But any vocal lapses were deftly filled in by Al Jardine and his son Matt Jardine. In fact, when Matt would take the lead and flawlessly execute the high notes on certain songs like “Don’t Worry Baby,” it was almost eerie listening to him serve as a counterpoint to Wilson. It was as if he was a younger version of Brian, and both young and old Brian were on stage together, singing to each other as well as in harmony. Matt, his father Al, and Chaplin all got their own deserved standing ovations over the course of the evening, which says a lot about Wilson’s current band lineup.

Photo by Daniel Coston

Brian Wilson is the melodic heart and soul behind The Beach Boys. Wilson’s struggles with drugs and mental illness have been well documented in books, documentaries, and the recent narrative film Love and Mercy. It’s easy to get caught up in the messy and notoriously difficult persona of Wilson, but when we separate the artist from the music, the songs are a gift and those in attendance were lucky to hear him and his band perform them for us. Wilson closed the encore with the late-period “Love and Mercy,” a song he has closed many shows with in recent years. It’s a tender ballad that Wilson sang with more clarity and emotion than nearly any other song of the evening and he was accompanied by only piano and the backing vocals of his group. As he sang the final lines “So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight/Love and mercy, that’s what you need tonight” before exiting the stage, it was a warm and fuzzy sendoff from an oft-misunderstood American icon.

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