When Brian Wilson last took the stage at New York’s Beacon Theater, a little less than a year and a half ago, he was once again a member of the Beach Boys, content to stay perched behind a piano on the side of the stage while his cousin (and longtime nemesis) Mike Love pranced around and dominated the proceedings as much as possible. It was a reunion few could have ever imagined, and nobody was surprised when it imploded months later. Each side has their story of what happened, but nobody disputes that Wilson is now once again a solo artist and Mike Love’s Beach Boys are now available for bookings at a casino or state fair near you.
Wilson wasn’t about to simply give up and leave the Beach Boys banner in the hands of his litigious cousin. Instead, he put together a coalition of the willing Beach Boys – including founding members David Marks and Al Jardine alongside 1970s Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin and Brian’s incredible longtime backing band – and hit the road with a show that blows Love’s tired oldies revue completely out of the water. Last night, they revisited the Beacon with fantastic results.
Jeff Beck is along for the ride, too, and is in the middle of recording a new album with Wilson. At first glance the pairing seems completely incongruous, since the 1960s British blues rock scene had little in common with the Surf Wall of Sound that Brian created 5,000 miles away in Los Angeles. But the minute the former Yardbird played the opening notes of “Surf’s Up” on the guitar – flawlessly recreating the original vocal melody while Wilson and his bandmates contributed gorgeous backing vocals – the pairing made complete sense. These are artists with a lot of mutual respect, and they’ve found a way to perfectly complement each other.
The show began promptly at 8:00 PM with Wilson and his band performing a beautiful a-cappella rendition of “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” by the Four Freshmen, a formative influence on Wilson. After getting the crowd on their feet with “California Girls,” they brought out Blondie Chaplin – a man whose tenure in the Beach Boys stretches from early 1972 all the way to late 1973. He cut two albums in that time period, and song lead on the classic “Sail on Sailor.” Forty years later, he delivered it with pretty stunning vocal power and followed it up with the fan favorite “Wild Honey.”
It was at this point that Wilson dropped the bomb: not only were they going to play “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” next, but they it would be followed by the rest of Pet Sounds in sequence. It’s the first time he’s done the album in many years, and the first time he’s ever done an album without any prior announcement. The audience was stunned into silence, and didn’t seem to even believe it was true until sometime around “That’s Not Me.” They didn’t have the string section from the Pet Sounds tour of 2000 – 2001, but the band was clearly up for the challenge.
Pet Sounds is a very demanding album for Wilson vocally, and although Jeff Foskett handled many of the higher notes, it was clear Wilson gave it everything he had. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” has rarely been so touching, and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” was incredibly moving. “Now we’re going to play, I think, the best song I ever wrote,” he said before “God Only Knows.” “And I’ve written a lot of songs.” Nobody can match Carl Wilson’s original vocals, but he still did a stellar job and got a huge standing ovation.
When the album was done, they got the crowd dancing with “Good Vibrations,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “I Get Around” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” These gave Jardine a chance to shine, and his voice is remarkably well-preserved for 71. Having him there is a huge asset to the show, even when he’s only on background vocals. A simple “pom-pa-bom-pa-bom bom-pa” makes a big difference and causes it to sound like the Beach Boys and not just a cover band featuring Brian Wilson. David Marks also took some guitar leads, perfectly recreating parts he played as a teenager fifty years ago.
After a brief intermission, Jeff Beck took the stage with his four-piece band. He had a tough job in front of him. Unlike Wilson, he doesn’t have an arsenal of hits to draw from. He doesn’t even have a singer on most of his songs, but he won over the crowd very quickly with his sheer virtuosity and his seemingly unique ability to play the vocal melody of any tune on the guitar. He wisely mixed into the set a few classic rock covers like “A Day in the Life” and “Little Wing,” but the audience seemed mesmerized by the entire thing, especially when his young violinist Lizzie Ball took a solo, or even channeled Mary Ford’s vocals on the Les Paul classic “How High the Moon.”
As Beck’s set went on, Wilson and members of his band came and went from the stage, helping the guitarist out on the Smile classics “Our Prayer” and “Child Is the Father of the Man.” At the end of the night, both bands came together for “Surfin’ USA,” “Barbara Ann” and the grand finale of “Danny Boy.” Beck was clearly having a blast taking solos on the Beach Boys classics, and at the end of the night he gave Wilson a huge hug.
It’s easy to imagine Mike Love’s reaction to this show: “Who the hell is that guitarist without any sleeves? Why not do ‘Kokomo,’ ‘Be True to Your School’ and the car medley? People might not want to hear all of ‘Shut Down’ and ‘Little Deuce Coup,’ but you gotta play a little bit of them! Oh my god, not Pet Sounds! You’re doing all of it? I don’t remember half those songs and that’ll take up too much time and you won’t be able to squeeze in the John Stamos drum solo. What’s that? No Stamos? How can you say such a thing? Tell me you’re at least doing ‘Surfing’ Safari.’ Good god, I haven’t done a show without that song since Kennedy was in the White House. And don’t even tell me that’s Blondie Chaplin up there! Didn’t my brother take care of him back in ’73?”
His vision of the Beach Boys and Brian’s was always very different. The reunion tour last year was a lot of fun, but it clearly wasn’t meant to last. Anybody that wants to hear “Kokomo” and listen to a Full House cast member play drums can easily find that show, but Brian Wilson has once again proved he doesn’t need to own the name “The Beach Boys” to carry on the group’s legacy.