A night with Brian Wilson

When it comes to music, The Beach Boys were my first love.

One of my fondest childhood memories is coming home from church on Sunday mornings and begging my dad to put on his “Beach Boys Concert” record; I would sing and dance to it on the brick ledge of our fireplace as if it was my stage while Mom and Dad made lunch in the kitchen. Later my music collection began with my own copy of “Beach Boys Concert” few other Beach Boys compilations on cassette tapes. I still think “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Good Vibrations” are four of the greatest songs ever recorded.

Not long after Kates and I started dating, we were driving somewhere when “Fun, Fun, Fun” came on the radio. Without hesitation, I sang it with gusto – every word – and I’ll never forget the way Kates laughed. The opening verse is one of my all-time favorites ...
Well she got her daddy's car
And she cruised through the hamburger stand now
Seems she forgot all about the library
Like she told her old man now
And with the radio blasting
Goes cruising just as fast as she can now
Later, the song became a staple of Phoebe’s rock ‘n’ roll playlist. One day when she was little, she asked me, “Daddy, can you play the song about the girl who goes to the library?”

And tonight I saw it all on a stage as Brian Wilson performed with Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin at the Kauffman Center. The nostalgia flowed and my smile was wide.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The Kauffman Center is, hands down, my favorite concert venue in Kansas City these days. The performance spaces are gorgeous and there are no bad seats.
The staff also treats you like royalty.

Tonight’s show was in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, and my seat was in the lowest section closest to the stage. In row seven.

“You’re in for a good night,” the usher told me as I passed through the door to the section. “You’re lucky to be here.”

The theatre’s sound system was playing orchestral versions of Beach Boys songs, and it sounded beautiful. So I Shazam’d it … “The Hollyridge Strings Play The Beach Boys Song Book.” Album downloaded. Volumes 1 and 2. I listened to them multiple times today, and it is a fantastic collection.

A few minutes after I’d settled into my seat, a couple arrived and took their seats in front of me. The young man, who appeared in his late 20s or early 30s, quickly asked a man sitting next to me to take a picture of him and his girlfriend. “I want to make my dad jealous,” he said. “This is the music I was raised on.”

True that, dude.

The opening act, Beat Root Revival, was outstanding. From their website …
Beat Root Revival are a multi-instrumentalist roots duo, combining elements of Folk, Blues, Country and Rock n Roll to create a foot stomping, melodic sound, made up of power house harmonic vocalists Andrea Magee and Ben Jones.
The duo was effusive with their praise of Brian Wilson and the opportunity to tour with him. In a funny moment as they prepared to close their set, Ben told the crowd he needed to address “the elephant in the room,” and mimicked the long sigh many of us in the audience, me included, probably let out upon learning there would be an opening act. He admitted he would have done the same thing and thanked us for being a gracious audience.

But that sigh was undeserved. Beat Root Revival had a sound that any comparison doesn’t do justice. The closest I can come up with is The Civil Wars with a hint of Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham on steroids. They mixed hard rocking tunes - that featured Ben wailing into his mic – very much like Buckingham – and sawing up and down a guitar as Andrea flapped her hand on an Irish drum, with softer, tender ballads. They covered Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and their finale mixed “Come Together” with the guitar riff of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” Check 'em out ...

After an intermission, it was time for Brian Wilson and his band.

Let’s be honest. Wilson’s past drug use and disconnect are well-documented. I went to the show not knowing what to expect and hopeful that I could still be wowed by him performing. It became painfully obvious that wasn’t going to happen as he appeared on the stage with a crew member who helped Brian shuffle to his piano at center stage. His hair was a ghostly white, his face looked pale and he sat slouched back in his chair for much of the night.

In trying to learn more about his touring band tonight, I stumbled on this review published last year by The Guardian that parallels my impressions …
Fans who note how uncomfortable Wilson frequently looks on stage have wondered aloud whether he should be there at all, let alone performing dozens of gigs a year in his mid-70s. The spectre of an artist who’s milking it – or a larger organisation that’s manipulating a vulnerable man in order to milk it – has been both invoked and hotly denied.
At best, Wilson appeared as though he was just along for the ride. At times he appeared lost and confused. Sometimes he appeared tired. Other times he appeared to be just taking it all in, eyes wandering around the theater as if he was thinking, This is my music – and, hey, it’s pretty good.

But, oh, when his all-star band of multi-instrumentalists swooped in with their vocals and the classic Beach Boys harmonies came together, it was magic.

Toward the end of the show, when the band members were being introduced, Paul Von Mertens, who played saxophone, flute and harmonica, introduced Wilson as “The man who brings us together with his soul, his heart and his music.” It was a perfect summary of the show, which felt a lot like a tribute band that just happened to feature Wilson, Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin as the special guests. Truly, the band did the heavy lifting all night long and made the show enjoyable.

Wilson was strongest and in vintage form on “Dance, Dance, Dance,” but on other songs he dropped lyrics and slurred words. He couldn’t hold the notes as he sang “God Only Knows” and, frankly, he sounded like a Muppet singing the song.

Rob Bonfiglio, aka Carnie Wilson’s husband and thus Brian’s son-in-law, took Wilson’s signature falsetto parts, most notably on “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Surfer Girl.”

Meanwhile, Al Jardine – who, after all, may be my favorite of all the Beach Boys vocalists – picked up the lead vocals on the songs in the set that Mike Love made famous. And Blondie commanded the stage midway through the show as the band touched on the Beach Boys’ foray into more progressive music during the 1970s. “Feel Flows,” one of my favorites from that era, was especially good, and an extended “Wild Honey” ended as a raucous jam session. Blondie also sang a soaring “Sail on, Sailor.”

They rolled out all the hits – and some great surprises I never expected to hear, too, including “Little Honda,” “Salt Lake City” and “All Summer Long.” The latter two sounded especially good with all of the instrumentation and vocals.

Eventually the band ran through the highlights from “Pet Sounds” and delighted the crowd with “Good Vibrations.”

Quickly after the last note of “Good Vibrations,” the man who helped Wilson onto the stage at the start of the show reappeared and whisked Brian off the stage. The rest of the band put down their instruments and I thought for sure that was the end of it.

But the house lights didn’t come on, and soon Von Mertens returned to stage to address the crowd and lead a very cool introduction of each of the band members. As each member was introduced, the guys who had retaken their places on the stage played a few bars of a classic rock song. The segment started with the drummer and the bass player doing Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” and the arrangements became fuller as more band members came back to the stage, eventually ending with takes on Archie Bell and The Drells’ “Tighten Up” and The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine.” It turned out several of the band members appeared in “Love and Mercy,” the fantastic Brian Wilson bio film, as studio musicians; here’s a good read about how the band came together.

By accident, I found a video of the introductions from one of Wilson’s shows last year. Some of the band members and songs are different, but it captures the segment well.

The audience had been sitting throughout the night, but Wilson’s return to the stage for the encore drew a standing ovation and we stayed standing as the band finished off the show with another run of Beach Boys hits, including a good “Help Me, Rhonda,” Al Jardine’s signature song, which I had eagerly anticipated all night.

(Update 11.16.2018: Wilson and his band played St. Louis last night. This review of the show reads as though it could have been written about the Kansas City show I saw as well.)

The setlist:
1. California Girls
2. Dance, Dance, Dance
3. I Get Around
4. Shut Down
5. Little Deuce Coup
6. Little Honda
7. Surfer Girl
8. Salt Lake City
9. Wake the World
10. California Saga: California
11. Don’t Worry, Baby
12. Darlin’
13. Feel Flows
14. Wild Honey
15. Sail On sailor
16. Do It Again
17. Wouldn’t It Be Nice
18. Sloop John B
19. God Only Knows
20. Good Vibrations

21. All Summer Long
22. Help Me Rhonda
23. Barbara Ann
24. Surfin’ USA
25. Fun, Fun, Fun
26. Love and Mercy

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