(Photo Credit: Sharon Alagna)
If George Harrison and John Lennon were with us today, perhaps Londontown music heads would be blessed with the opportunity to hear them reprise the monumental glory of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the Royal Albert Hall, set just a few miles from Abbey Road Studios. Alas, of course this cannot be. But such dreamlike moments in live music still happen.
On Sunday night at the Hollywood Bowl, Brian Wilson appeared to perform, in its entirety, Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys’ 1966 watershed masterpiece. Although half of a century has passed since its release, sonic creative ripples of the LP are still being realized throughout myriad genres of music. Recorded a short jaunt down Highland Ave. in Hollywood’s music studios, the album remains a harbinger of an entirely novel approach to what an album can be: conceptual, multi-layered, unified, and something that lives on brightly as a time capsule of a bygone era.
Bookended by a veritable hit parade of Beach Boys classics, the thirteen tracks of Pet Sounds served as the centerpiece of a deeply nostalgic performance. Starting with the hymnal “Our Prayer,” the eleven piece band stretched its legs in anticipation of a meaty thirty-three song set. The intro gave way to 1967’s “Heroes and Villains.” Laden with boardwalk fun house sounds, the song revealed a subtly psychedelic palette from which many of the Beach Boys’ songs were drawn.
Early set inclusions “California Girls” and “I Get Around” evidenced just how huge many of the night’s songs were in stature. Both tunes’ All-American references to cars and girls help validate why they are clear members of the diverse, yet unmistakable national canon. Wilson, who sat the entire show behind a white grand piano, sang earnestly, if a little worn by time. He was buoyed by harmonies cut from the same cloth that made the Beach Boys what they are. At many points, vocal contributions from guitarist Al Jardine’s son Matt Jardine carried the performance (“Hushaby”, “Don’t Worry Baby”, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”, “Caroline, No”).
Wilson’s band was equally strong. From Probyn Gregory’s ear-and-mind-bending Theremin solos (the band’s “secret weapon”), to the Beach Boys’ own Blondie Chaplin’s guitar solos executed amidst a cross-stage strut, the players fresh aptitude ensured that the enormity of Wilson’s catalogue found modern footing. First released in 1967, a staggering 49 years ago, “Wild Honey,” got weird before getting lifted by one of many Paul Merten-authored saxophone solos.
After thirteen songs, Wilson steered the ship in to Pet Sounds, starting with the aw-shucks anthem of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Pet Sounds is by all accounts a cacophonous work, known for its endless onion-like layers of harpsichord, accordion, bongos, ukulele, glockenspiel and Coke bottles – to name only a few of the instruments. Album credits include 60+ individuals, and that number is absent any sort of orchestral participation.
To present it all in order, fifty years later, is a daunting endeavor and one that inevitably runs the risk of tainting its memory in the name of nostalgia. Within the confines of present day social media hypercriticism, a tour like this can potentially derail a hard-earned legacy among cynical millennials. However, those paying attention to the performance of songs like “You Still Believe in Me,” “Sloop John B,” and, of course, “God Only Knows” were privy to all of what music can be; emotional time travel, or perhaps a glimpse into an era that your parents once knew. Following the wrenching rendition of “God Only Knows,” the crowd couldn’t help but to stand and heap praise on Wilson, who in return, humbly begged everyone to “have a seat.”
The desperately alienated “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” introduced as a “social statement,” rang particularly true, as the Bowl’s iconic shell was flanked by American and California state flags at half-mast, signs of a nation currently wrestling with issues similar to those that plagued the country at the time of Pet Sounds’ emergence.
One of two instrumentals from the album, title track “Pet Sounds,” featured distorted guitar wizardry, and an outro that was reminiscent of a later section of “Layla.” All put together, it totaled a near-Big Band sound with slick saxophone that gave way to a percussion jam worthy of comparison to parts of one the Dead’s “Drums.”
Pet Sounds last track “Caroline, No” echoed Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” lament (“Please see for me if her hair hangs long”), via Wilson’s similar poetic cry: “Where did your long hair go?” The wistful tune ended with the replicated prerecorded album sounds of a dog barking, and then an oncoming train’s horn blowing aimlessly in to the night. At the finish line, the audience stood to applaud once again, grateful. Wilson ended the main set with the euphoric nostalgic peak of “Good Vibrations,” with rainbow colored rings lighting the Bowl’s inner layers.
Pet Sounds lyricist Tony Asher, who was introduced before the encore, came forth to man a tambourine for the six-song encore. “Help Me, Rhonda” saw Merten step forward with his sax, coercing the crowd to believe that perhaps E Street was in fact somewhere over off of Venice Blvd.
The dizzying jukebox barrage of “Barbara Ann”, “Surfin’ USA” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” followed, before Brian Wilson said goodbye with the timely “Love and Mercy”, a song off of his 1988 solo debut that doubled as the title to the recent biopic film chronicling part of his life. With a Randy Newman-like sincerity, Wilson sang, “All the violence that occurs/ Seems like we never win/ Love and mercy, that’s what you need tonight/ So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight.”
Portland’s M. Ward kicked off the evening with a robust fifteen song set that started with a solo performance of “One Hundred Million Years.” If stepping in front of 15,000 attendees with nothing but a guitar in hand is intimidating, Ward didn’t falter as he skulked around the stage, finger picking with a signature slap of his right hand. His band soon joined him to play songs off of his recent release More Rain (“Girl From Conejo Valley”, “Confession”).
Ward’s gravelly soulful voice and tongue in cheek lyrics shone in songs like “Poison Cup,” “Rollercoaster,” and “Magic Trick,” the latter of which confided and then burned, “she’s got one magic trick, just one and that’s it……..she disappears!”
Ward also managed to get a couple of his other bands back together. She & Him bandmate Zooey Deschanel came on stage for three songs, and proceeded to enthusiastically sing along, often hopping in place. The final few songs of the set included ¾ of indie super group Monsters of Folk, namely My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, and Ward.
Earlier in the set, Ward mindfully paused to acknowledge that we were “all gathered to celebrate” Pet Sounds, “one of the greatest masterpieces ever made.”
Brian Wilson Setlist
Heroes and Villains
River Deep, Mountain High
Dance, Dance, Dance
I Get Around
Don’t Worry Baby
California Saga: California
One Kind of Love
Sail On, Sailor
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
You Still Believe in Me
That’s Not Me
Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)
I’m Waiting for the Day Let’s Go Away for Awhile
Sloop John B
God Only Knows
I Know There’s an Answer
I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times
All Summer Long
Help Me, Rhonda
Fun, Fun, Fun
Love and Mercy
M. Ward Setlist
One Hundred Million Years
Time Won’t Wait
I Get Ideas
Girl From Conejo Valley
Magic Trick (with Zooey Deschanel)
Never Had Nobody (with Zooey Deschanel)
Rave On (with Zooey Deschanel)
(instrumental John Fahey cover)
To Save Me (with Jim James and Conor Oberst)
Vincent O’Brien (with Jim James and Conor Oberst)
Whole Lotta Losin’ (with Jim James and Conor Oberst)