Three signs that the Brian Wilson tribute you’re attending is not in Southern California but New York: 1) Any glimpse of Billy Joel or Paul Simon causes immediate standing ovations; 2) the words “and, of course, the Yankees were in the World Series” induces animal noises from the balcony; 3) your host for the evening: Chazz Palminteri.
OK, so last night Radio City Music Hall — in rain-swept, taxi-cab-infested Midtown Manhattan — wasn’t exactly the embodiment of the California dream Brian Wilson has been painting for four decades through his golden arrangements and warm harmonies, but his dream of pop music as inspiration, art and even loving companion was alive and well in the sunny hearts of all those who took the stage . . . and took their seats.
In between shouts of “We love you, Brian!,” American pop’s most revered genius and dozens of his musically minded admirers played the songs made famous by Brian, his two late brothers Carl and Dennis, his cousin Mike, his friend Al and a slew of others who at one time or another proudly called themselves “Beach Boys.” The event, “An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson,” was being taped for a TV special of the same name, to air, fittingly enough, July 4th on TNT.
First up were the Harlem Boys Choir, who — clad in red dinner jackets and bow ties — sang the haunting multi-part harmonies of “Our Prayer,” an a capella number from Wilson’s aborted 1967 project Smile. Then came Ricky Martin, who smiled and sashayed about in his bon-bon-flattering, mock stone-washed leather pants. Backed like everyone by Wilson’s surrogate band, slick L.A. popsters the Wondermints, Martin turned in karaoke-style versions of “California Girls” and “Help Me, Rhonda.” The latter’s finest, and funniest, moments were Martin’s between-verse shout-outs, like “Are there any Rhondas in the house?”
Though one of the most-understated performances, Paul Simon’s rendition of “Surfer Girl,” Wilson’s first composition, proved to be among the most thoughtful. Accompanied only his own acoustic guitar, Simon finger-picked, lightly strummed and reached high but gently for his falsetto. That the baseball-capped Simon was the last guy who would take anybody anywhere in a Woody only added to the charm.
The recently reunited Go-Go’s went back to their late-Seventies punk rock roots in their fuel-injected runs through “Little Honda” and “Surf City,” two songs penned by Wilson not for the Beach Boys but for the Hondells and Jan and Dean, respectively. Of course, as former cover girl and future Playmate Belinda Carlisle sang the lead vocals and did her familiar Charlie Brown dance, the green-haired Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, Kathy Valentine and Gina Schock chimed in with their doctored back-up vocals, “Two boys for every girl!”
The night’s first group of strange mike-fellows was David Crosby, Carly Simon and Jimmy Webb, who sang “In My Room.” Carly, still of able voice and body (as her rather revealing dress proved), carried the men who flanked her; Crosby, once considered rock’s greatest harmonizer, doesn’t have all of his pipes, and Webb is better known for writing sublime tunes like “Wichita Lineman” than for singing them.
The winner of the young Brian Wilson lookalike, and soundalike, contest was baby-faced, roly-poly country crooner Vince Gill, who turned in a spot-on version of the celestial ballad “The Warmth of the Sun.” The Lowenstein brothers — better known as Evan and Jaron — did their best young Wilson brothers impersonation by dressing in matching striped shirts, but, despite their good looks, when they sang their saccharine version of “I Get Around,” it was difficult to take their word for it.
Producer Sir George Martin took the stage to pontificate on the influence Wilson had on his lads the Beatles, crediting Wilson with making the recording studio rock’s most powerful instrument. Then, articulating why trying to reproduce studio masterpieces like “Good Vibrations” live is darn near impossible, he welcomed Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson and baritone gospel singer Jubilant Sykes to the stage to do just that. The Wilson sisters did their best to reproduce the lofty vocal parts of the Wilson brothers and Sykes more than capably handled Mike Love’s “I’m picking up good vibrations/She’s giving me excitations” part. Ann, moving her arms in pantomime synchronized swimming-like motions, let loose at the song’s climax, howling “good, good, good, good” with all the muscle of “craaaazy on you.”
Billy Joel sat down at his little brown piano and immediately charmed the crowd with the story of how his daughter became a Beach Boys fan after hearing “Don’t Worry Baby” in the Drew Barrymore flick Never Been Kissed. Dedicating the song to her, Joel gave one of the evening’s most accomplished performances, belting out the song as confidently as if it were on his Turnstiles album.
Matthew Sweet, one of Wilson’s most direct musical disciples and winner of the young Carl Wilson lookalike contest, took the stage with Darius Rucker, and the two traded verses of the Beach Boys’ Seventies hit “Sail On Sailor.” Their inspired performance displayed more soul than we’re used to hearing from either of them. “I love you Brian,” Sweet would later say during a performance of “I’m Waiting for the Day.” “Thanks for showing us what a song can mean.”
Brian’s daughters Carnie and Wendy took the stage with Chynna Phillips for the first performance by Wilson Phillips in over a decade. But in addition to saluting Wilson, they took the opportunity to eulogize another great Californian songwriter, Chynna’s dad, the recently deceased John Phillips, by dedicating “You’re So Good to Me” to him.
After more kind words from Dennis Hopper, who called Wilson “the ultimate survivor,” Brian finally took the stage. As manic applause and shouts of love poured down on him, he returned the love, promised everybody more “good vibes,” and — obviously unfamiliar with the ways of New Yorkers — thanked everybody for making the drive.
Wilson, seated at the keyboard, and the Wondermints ran through “Heroes and Villains,” “Lay Down Burden” (during which they were joined by Carl’s son Justin Wilson on guitar) and “Do It Again.” Wilson dedicated the night to his brothers and thanked his songwriting collaborators Van Dyke Parks and Tony Asher, who both stood up and took bows.
After Cameron Crowe introduced the TNT special video segment dedicated to Wilson’s masterwork, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album (which Crowe used to great visual effect in his film Almost Famous), Wilson and his guests, now also backed by the house orchestra, performed the album in its entirety.
Elton John joined Wilson for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and made a valiant effort of stepping in for Carl to handle the lead vocals on “God Only Knows,” while husband and wife team Aimee Mann and Michael Penn — after not completely conquering their soundcheck problems — fought their way through the unforgiving “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”
Because of the many set changes, and the occasional do-overs (like Palminteri referring to the not-present Paul McCartney as “Paul McCarthy” and Crosby falling far behind the teleprompter on “Sloop John B.”), the momentum was often squelched, and the show — over three hours in length — often dragged, sending many heading for the exits early.
However, for the grand finale, Brian said he wanted to “rock out,” and he made good on his promise. After a night that showcased some of the most complex arrangements ever housed in rock sections of record stores, Wilson reminded us why we were all here in the first place: Because, before he would change the very framework of pop music, one American teenager, his brothers, cousin and buddy got together to sing about what they collectively knew best: girls, the beach, growing up and having fun. As Rock & Roll Hall of Famers and some of today’s most acclaimed purveyors of the genre swayed arm-in-arm (and Joel and John swing danced), Brian, ol’ trusty bass in hand, led the entire cast through “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” Masterful? Not really . . . but worth the drive from California.