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Sunday, June 19, 2011



Brian Wilson
Live At Massey Hall (June 18, 2011) :: Beginning with The Beatles back in 1964, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been in the same room with countless musicians over the past five decades. Some were technically proficient while others were terribly pretentious. Some made a living by being supreme showmen while others made a living by being cunning con men. But of all the acts I’ve seen over the decades, a scant few deserved to be described with the mighty mantle of genius.

The Rolling Stones will be the first ones to tell you that they don’t qualify because that’s not their job; indeed, the Stones’ only talent for genius seem to lie in their uncanny ability to have survived relatively unscathed for the past fifty years.

As for The Beatles—who didn’t even last a decade, let alone an entire half century—they only qualify in large part due to the fact that half the group were superior songwriters lucky enough to have had George Martin around to make their music manifest. Would The Beatles have been nearly as necessary had their albums been produced by Andrew Loog Oldham or Kit Lambert? And one listen to Let It Be provides ample evidence of what the Fabulous Four were able to come up with when left to their own dithering devices: not much, which is why, humbled with hat in hand, they had to beg a skeptical George Martin back into the studio to produce Abbey Road for them.

Dylan? See “cunning con men” above ref.

And then there’s Brian Wilson, a man truly touched by genius who had only himself to rely on when it came to getting his music out of his mind and onto Beach Boys records. Unlike the Stones and Beatles, who at least had the option of infighting as a means of deflecting personal aesthetic blame, Wilson’s only rhetorical recourse in times of creative crisis was himself, however debilitating the results.

So when I found out that Brian Wilson was coming to town to play his own classic compositions as well as those by another American icon, the venerated George Gershwin, I knew that I had to go and pay witness to these two generations of genius, housed under one historic roof. What I didn’t expect, however, was what I got: a two and a half hour extravaganza that easily ranks right up there as one of the most extraordinarily intelligent and fun concerts I’ve ever had the honor of attending.

For the first hour and a quarter, Wilson played just about every major song from his catalogue that you’d want to hear, backed by a bravura nine piece band which, in turn, was ably augmented by an additional string quintet.

Oh, and if you’re looking for a testament as to just how deep the Brian Wilson songbook is, look no further than the fact that Wilson could afford to effortlessly toss away major masterpieces like “God Only Knows,” “California Girls,” “Heroes And Villains” and “Good Vibrations” in the first half of the show instead of saving any of them for encore material. Now that’s confidence. So is the fact that Wilson could seamlessly intersperse his own material with a few choice Beach Boy covers, namely one from his sonic mentor Phil Spector (“Then I Kissed Her” from the Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) album); and Bobby Freeman’s “Do You Wanna Dance” (from The Beach Boys Today!).

Playing the above-noted four epics early also provided a good frame of reference for the strength of Wilson’s compositional skills when compared against those of George and Ira Gershwin, whose music was showcased during the second hour long half of the show. As might be expected, they compare more than favorably; what you might not be ready for though is the surreal sight of Wilson singing such standards as “Summertime,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and “Someone To Watch Over Me.”

But because Wilson’s voice and range is so strong, he actually manages to pull it off with ease, solidly anchored by a genuine historical respect for the material that’s nonparallel. Equally uncanny is his ability to take a classic like Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and arrange it with his patented “Wall Of Sand” harmonies to the point where it sounds as if Wilson wrote it as a Beach Boys single. Then again, what else would you expect from a man who dares to play “I Got Plenty Of Nothing” as an instrumental—with the missing vocal line played on a harmonica?

Probably that he’s the same kind of man who, as noted above, would perversely play all his big hits at the beginning of the show—during which he shyly allows that he’s “kinda proud” of “California Girls”—and instead dig deep into left field for encores of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (via 1964’s Beach Boys Concert); “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Surfin’ USA,” “Fun, Fun, Fun” and the unexpected surprise of the night: a giddy as all get out, rip-snortin’ version of “Barbara Ann.”

Whether he’s sitting at his Yamaha; strapping on a Fender; or inexplicably getting the audience to gleefully sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” for no other reason than just because, Brian Wilson continues to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that his heart is every bit as big as his limitless talent—and if anyone ever tries to tell you different, you just tell ’em it ain’t necessarily so!

Be seeing you!

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