Review of Brian Wilson concert 9/10/09 at Lobero Theatre. Originally appeared here.
Also, review of documentary about Brian Wilson called “Going Home,” world premiere showing on 1/30/09 at Lobero Theatre, Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Originally appeared here.
California Beaming with Brian Wilson
A decade ago, Princeton economics professor — and future Nobel laureate in economics — Daniel Kahneman co-authored a Psychological Science article called “Does Living in California Make People Happy?” This study showed that people living in Southern California and the Midwest actually have similar levels of satisfaction with their lives, but both groups felt that “someone like them” would be happier living in California.
Although it isn’t mentioned in this study, I would argue that a large part of this perception is due to the music of Brian Wilson, in particular his early songs with The Beach Boys. Wilson wrote songs that painted California as a sunny paradise of surf, hot rods, beautiful women, and fun.
But the first set of Wilson’s triumphant show at the Lobero Theatre on Wednesday night also reminded us that there was more to The Beach Boys than sun and fun. This included the Pet Sounds classics “In My Room,” which Wilson undersold as “another ballad;” “God Only Knows,” which he reported is his friend Paul McCartney‘s favorite song; and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” The set closed with one of pop music’s all-time greatest songs, the theremin-driven “Good Vibrations.”
The second set was a complete performance of the Brian Wilson solo album That Lucky Old Sun, released this month. This is an ode to Southern California in the 1950s and ‘60s, and included taped narratives from the album with vintage footage projected on a screen above the band. Most moving was the sequence starting with a montage of pictures of Brian with brothers Dennis and Carl Wilson, who drowned in 1983 and died of cancer in 1998, respectively. This was followed by the poignant “Midnight’s Another Day,” in which Brian addresses the mental illness that incapacitated him for years with lyrics like “Lost my way/ The sun grew dim” and “Swept away in a brainstorm/ Chapters missing, pages torn.” His recovery was then celebrated in the next song, “Going Home,” in which he sings that he “Found peace of mind, yeah one piece at a time.” The crowd enthusiastically rose to its feet at the end of this song, applauding both the stellar performance and Wilson’s return from the brink.
The rollicking first encore kicked off with a lively cover of “Johnny B. Goode” and never slowed down. Wilson even got up from behind his keyboard and played bass, starting with “Barbara Ann.” The concert closed with a second encore in which the band played “Love and Mercy” from Brian’s 1988 solo debut.
The 10-member band, supplemented in the second set by strings, was truly remarkable throughout, with spot-on harmonizing and playing. I counted up to eight of the band members singing background vocals at the same time, giving the angelic blend that is so much associated with The Beach Boys. They were clearly having a good time, as was the audience.
Does living in California make people happy? Maybe not. But listening to Brian Wilson’s music certainly can.
1. Little Girl I Once Knew
2. Dance, Dance, Dance
3. Catch A Wave
4. Then I Kissed Her
5. Surfer Girl
6. In My Room
7. All Summer Long
8. Do You Wanna Dance?
9. Row, Row, Row Your Boat
10. Add Some Music to Your Day
11. Please Let Me Wonder
12. Wouldn’t It Be Nice
13. God Only Knows
14. Sail On, Sailor
15. California Girls
16. Do It Again
17. I Get Around
18. Good Vibrations
19. That Lucky Old Sun
20. Morning Beat
21. Room With A View (Narrative)
22. Good Kind of Love
23. Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl
24. Venice Beach (Narrative)
25. Live Let Live/That Lucky Old Sun (reprise)
26. Mexican Girl
27. Cinco de Mayo (Narrative)
28. California Role/That Lucky Old Sun (reprise)
29. Between Pictures (Narrative)
30. Oxygen to the Brain
31. Can’t Wait Too Long
32. Midnight’s Another Day
33. That Lucky Old Sun (reprise)
34. Going Home
35. Southern California
36. Johnny B. Goode
37. Help Me Rhonda
38. Barbara Ann
39. Surfin’ USA
40. Fun, Fun, Fun
41. Love and Mercy
Documentary Reveals Brian Wilson’s Musical Genius at Work
“Going Home” is a fascinating portrayal of a legendary Beach Boy
At the start of Going Home — a documentary about the making of Brian Wilson’s 2008 album That Lucky Old Sun that had its world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last week — former-Monkee Mickey Dolenz recalls a party that a bathrobed Wilson rushed to after learning John Lennon was there. At the party Wilson started repeating four bars of groovy music on a Moog synthesizer, and continued playing this over and over to the point that an impatient Lennon said, “all right Brian, we got that part. Let’s go on to the bridge.”
This story nicely illustrates Wilson’s eccentricity and perfectionism, traits that combined with his innate musical genius to make the Beach Boys’ canon of songs about surf, sun, hot rods and girls among the most beloved in rock ‘n’ roll.
The album That Lucky Old Sun has a strong Beach Boys vibe, appropriate for Wilson “going home” to Capitol Records, the label that released all of the early Beach Boys records. It should be mentioned that the film was premiered at the Lobero Theatre, site of Wilson’s brilliant concert that included a full performance of That Lucky Old Sun last September.
It was fascinating to see footage from the recording studio showing how the music was put together. Wilson is very active in the recording process, working closely with his band members to capture the arrangement that is amazingly already figured out in his head. Every note matters to Wilson, and he’ll point out if, for example, a chord being played isn’t the Bbm7b5 he wants. (This is a real chord, by the way — the documentary notes that this particular chord shows up in “God Only Knows,” and that this is probably one of the few rock ‘n’ roll songs which uses it.)
The documentary also shows interview clips from the ultra-talented current Brian Wilson Band members, Wilson’s brother Carl’s brother-in-law Billy Hinsche, fan Billy Bob Thornton, Pet Sounds lyricist Tony Asher, surf legend Robert August, Robin Pecknold from Beach-Boys-influenced band Fleet Foxes, and, of course, Wilson himself. All, except the rather modest Wilson, profusely praise his musical genius.
Perhaps the most perceptive point made in the film was that often it is an outsider who can best capture the essence of something. As recalled in the Q&A session after the film, Wilson only surfed once, years after the 1960s Beach Boys hits were recorded. However, despite his outsider status, his music was hugely responsible for spreading surfing culture and defining the California experience throughout the world.
The Q&A session after the film featured director George Dougherty and band member (and Santa Barbaran) Jeff Foskett. Wilson was eager to attend, but sadly had to cancel his scheduled appearance because of the flu.
Foskett recounted meeting Wilson for the first time, a longtime dream of his. While a student at UCSB, Foskett and a friend drove around Bel Air until they spotted the stained-glass window shown on the cover of the Beach Boys album, Wild Honey. He rang the bell at the gate, and to his surprise Wilson buzzed him in, and to his even greater surprise Foskett ended up spending a few hours as a guest at Wilson’s house. Foskett revealed that he now gets about five phone calls from Wilson every day, which is seemingly part of Wilson’s routine. These phone calls mostly concern music, the Los Angeles Lakers, or lunch.
We also learned that Foskett’s (and Wilson’s) favorite Brian Wilson song is “God Only Knows,” and that when the band is traveling Wilson always looks for The Bucket List on the hotel television. Foskett also mentioned that Wilson credits the vocal arrangements by Dick Reynolds with the Four Freshman as a huge inspiration.
The only mild criticism I have of the film is that it ultimately came across as an extended, well-produced fan letter. We’re all happy that Wilson has conquered his personal demons and is performing and writing brilliant music again. However, one imagines that some stress and struggles must inevitably have been present in the 120 or so hours of footage shot for the documentary. Showing this would have provided some needed balance. As it is, the film is a masterful testament to Wilson’s musical genius.