With something like 80 events—including music, dance, theatre, and interdisciplinary art—the Sydney Festival is the city’s most definitive claim to world-class culture. While it’s been running since 1976, recent editions have inflated its cache, and, this year, it’s suddenly the thing on everyone’s lips.
This is Fergus Linehan’s third year as Festival Director, and it’s in his tenure that the festival has become a behemoth. His headliners are BIG—Elvis Costello in 2006, Lou Reed last year, and Brian Wilson in 2008. And as you might expect, tickets to the bigger events have gone FAST. Sufjan Stevens for three nights at the State Theatre? Sold out months ago. Joanna Newsom performing Ys with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Opera House? Nope. Björk on the steps of the Sydney Opera House? Forget about it.
Luckily, there’s a strong democratic streak to the festival, too, with a huge opening-night bonanza and free music across the city. Each Saturday, Sydney’s Domain Park plays host to a huge, free concert that attracts something like 100,000 people.
We’ll cover plenty of the shows over the next few weeks. First up is an exciting one: Brian Wilson offering a preview of his new work, That Lucky Old Sun (A Narrative).
Brian Wilson, of course, needs no introduction. The number of times rock critics (including myself) invoke the words “Brian Wilson-style harmonies” in reviews of new bands is parody-worthy (thanks a lot, Panda Bear!). Still, the influence of the Beach Boys’ master pop composer can’t really be overstated. I mean, Pet Sounds inspired Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for goodness sake.
So imagine the excitement I feel when I disembark a plane from New York at 6:35 am to find waiting for me a couple of tickets to see Brian Wilson the same evening at the State Theatre. And he’s not playing the usual wholly retrospective set list, but, alongside a slew of older tunes, a new, 40-minute work that has only been previously heard at a few concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
For someone who hasn’t followed his life and music with the emotional attachment of a fan, seeing Wilson onstage requires a quick reorientation. Wilson’s tardive dyskinesia, a result of illegal psychotropic drugs prescribed to him by his controversial psychiatrist in the ‘70s and ‘80s, certainly affects the way he presents himself, as well as our experience of seeing him perform. But soon after the band begins to play one of those recognizable tunes, nothing seems to matter as much as the music. Occasionally, Wilson shows flashes of real enthusiasm. “Chuck Berry taught me how to write songs,” he says, before setting off on another sunny classic. Or, “Thank you! I love that song!” Hey, so do we.
If there’s anything unsettling about Wilson’s music, it’s that, on record, it is often completely rootless: the high harmonies, for example on “God Only Knows”, take ‘floating’ to a whole new place. Live, the sound is completely confluent, with a stronger bass, and just enough vocal echo to recreate the desired “sound”. The arrangements are tight and expertly played—and you can tell that Wilson is a musical perfectionist, acutely listening to every note from his position behind a keyboard in the center of the stage.
OK, so we expected the hits and they were delivered—probably 40 or 50 of them over the course of the night—but what about the new material? That Lucky Old Sun (A Narrative), a 40-minute song cycle, opens the concert’s second half, and is played straight through without pause. Members of Australian contemporary string group FourPlay provide the string accompaniment for the instrumentally ambitious work, in a more demure mood than for their characteristically exuberant solo performances. If they are awed by their proximity to an idol, at least they do his floating orchestrations justice—there’s some gorgeous melodies buried in the new work. Buried between, that is, spoken-word paeans to LA life and its various pleasures.
Of course, his lyrics are not always subtle: after the line “these guitars gently strumming”, the guitars gently strum; after “voices softly humming”, they softly hum; after a bit about a Mexican girl, maracas shake with that clichéd “Mexican” rhythm. But for each instance of trite rhyme or obvious lyrical content, the music reinforces Wilson’s pop sophistication. Now the music extends “Good Vibrations”’ layered modulations into a series of cascading chords. Now it echoes “Graceland’“s wide-open space. Now it captures the nostalgia of an LA where sun and sand (not, uh, fame?) were the primary objects of worship. The sun might be the ultimate Wilson symbol—throughout That Lucky Old Sun, a black-and-white image of a young Wilson emblazoned within a fiery sun provides a touchstone for a returning melodic theme. At other points, an orange orb pulses and fades behind the band.
As much as the crowd appreciates the sophistication of the new material, there’s nothing like re-capturing lost youth: as the band tears through a second slew of hits in the encore, not just the enthusiastic women in the front row, but the whole theatre nods and dances along. An older gentleman with a Hawaiian shirt (dug up, perhaps, from the dark recesses of his wardrobe) jumps up and down, clapping and stomping until the whole mezzanine wobbles with the beat. Afterwards, everyone is thinking the same thing: Hey, we just got to see Brian Wilson. That’s pretty damn cool.