There’s still four months to go and plenty of concerts to see before we flip the calendar to 2006, but it’s pretty safe to say that this humble reviewer has just witnessed the best concert of 2005. And who would have thunk it would come from someone many left for dead (mentally, emotionally and spiritually) a scant five (or was it 30) years back?
13 Aug 2009: Jones Beach Theater Wantagh, NY
There was a serious Beatles/Beach Boys rivalry back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The upstart lads from Liverpool crossed the pond and presented a sound unlike any in the lower-48. Meanwhile, on the left coast, five guys who were all about sun, sand, surf, fast cars, and cute girls were leaving their own indelible mark on the American psyche. Both bands had at least one member into TM (Transcendental Meditation for you young’uns) and both went through psychedelic phases, but only the Beatles were able to withstand all that and keep their musical aura strong. The Beach Boys withered under the strain of forging a new direction, and soon, Brian Wilson abandoned the band - and life itself.
For years afterwards, the surviving Beach Boys continued to tour, though recordings usually bombed because Brian had been chief songwriter and composer. And, with Mike Love, they still tour under the Beach Boys banner. After over 30 years of wrestling with more issues than one can comfortably conceive, Wilson started to emerge from his shell. He did the odd concert here and there, completely nervous - understandable since, even in the band’s hey-day, he hardly ever actually toured with the Beach Boys, citing his notorious nerves. As he resurfaced, he would sing, and sometimes play his keyboards.
Last year, Wilson finally released his legendary unfinished masterpiece, SMiLE, a record he began in the ‘60s and had originally intended to rival Sgt. Pepper, but that fell apart as he himself fell into deep depression. Finally realized and released in ‘04, SMiLE really is an amazing piece of work, but some listeners have a problem with it because it was intended for release when psychedelic pop was the norm. But if you put yourself in a time capsule and dial back to that era, it’s a total blowaway.
Wilson decided to tour on SMiLE, and playing a date here and there. The success of the show (along with many positive and kind reviews) gave Wilson the impetus and courage to take on a full-blown tour. Now, he’s been on the road for well over a year. The format is the same as the early shows: a set of Beach Boys hits, an intermission, and then the entire SMiLE album performed from start to finish. Now, a year after the album’s release, the current tour is nearly the same; the only difference is an encore with five more Beach Boys songs.
If there were any type of poetic justice, the Jones Beach Theater would have been filled for this show. It was a humid evening, but bearable, with a breeze blowing in from the ocean. Hell, this was THE BEACH!—a perfect setting to see Wilson. Yet the 14,600-seat amphitheatre was about 1/3 full, a blasted shame (Tickets upstairs were going for $20, to boot.) And yet Wilson and his band played like there was a full house. And every single person who showed up got more than their money’s worth.
Wilson’s voice is not what it once was, but there were only one or two occasions where you could hear the strain. His band (including a small section of horn and string players) was airtight, giving the music more power and, well, more life. And even though there was only one official “Beach Boy” on stage, if you closed your eyes you’d never have known the difference.
Wilson played several hits in the opening segment and a few nuggets as well. The show opened with “Do It Again”, bringing the band and the crowd into the proceedings at full speed. There were classic Beach Boys songs (“Dance Dance Dance”, “I Get Around”, “California Girls”) mixed with album cuts (“Add Some Music to Your Day”, a Christmas song called “Little St. Nick”, “Sail On Sailor”).
The SMiLE album takes a lot of effort to create onstage, with all its twists and turns, but Wilson and crew pulled it off without a hitch. Of course, the project included two of the Beach Boys’ biggest songs: “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations”.
Wilson spoke to the crowd only on rare occasions, but every “Thank you” that emanated from his mouth was heartfelt. Encore songs included a rollicking version of “Johnny B. Goode”, as well as “Help Me Rhonda”, “Barbara Ann”, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, and “Fun Fun Fun”.
The enthusiasm and sheer joy on Wilson’s face while he was performing spoke volumes about how far he’s come along and how grateful he is that there are people still out there who not only remember him, but want to hear him for years on.
This is one of those “happy endings” for a career that started off with so much promise, but became caught in the usual drug- and alcohol-related quagmire. It’s also a happy ending for those who checked out the show, since Wilson’s newfound love of his music spread throughout the sparse crowd.