He’s a birthday presence
It’s an assertive Brian Wilson who marks a milestone at the Greek Theatre.
Brian Wilson’s concert Saturday at the Greek Theatre in L. A. coincided with his 73rd birthday, and for the occasion several of his children wheeled an oversized cake onstage, a bounteous bouquet of balloons ( courtesy of actor John Cusack) f loated at the back of the stage and the Beach Boys’ creative leader delivered a set with musical surprises.
There were no presents per se for the birthday boy to unwrap, but there was one important gift that Wilson tacitly gave to nearly 6,200 fans packed into the theater: quite possibly the most engaged, vocally assertive and present person he’s displayed since f itfully returning to live performance more than a decade and a half ago.
Wilson came across during the 1- hour, 45- minute show as happy to be where he was, which hasn’t always been the case in his concerts. Sometimes he appeared to be fulfilling an obligation or even a therapeutic necessity — something like a trip to the dentist — to help exorcise some of the demons he battled: the emotional and physical abuse from his father, Murry Wilson, his own nervous breakdown, drug abuse and more psychological torment during the years he was under the care of controversial psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy.
On Saturday, however, Wilson led proceedings from a bench at a white grand piano — in place of the electronic keyboard he’s often used in concert — which immediately telegraphed that he was musically home again.
For this tour, the Brian Wilson Band that’s been backing him since 1999 includes Beach Boys founding member Al Jardine, who sounded strong and energetic as ever when he took lead vocals on “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Sloop John B” and a few others.
Wilson also shared the spotlight in several songs with South African guitarist, singer and songwriter Blondie Chaplin, who joined the Beach Boys for a time in the early 1970s and remains best known for his muscular lead vocal on the group’s 1973 hit “Sail On Sailor.”
There was also a crossgenerational guest spot for Capital Cities singer Sebu Simonian, who sings on Wilson’s latest solo album, “No Pier Pressure.”
It was somewhat surprising and brief ly distracting when Simonian was bequeathed the lead vocal for “Don’t Worry Baby” and throughout the song had to look at the teleprompter at his feet. What self- respecting pop geek would sit in at a Brian Wilson concert and not have that lyric etched in his brain?
Stepping into the band to handle the stratospheric high harmonies that once were Wilson’s domain and that in recent years had been handled by singer- guitarist Jeffrey Foskett came Jardine’s son, Matt, to extend the family feeling that infused the proceedings.
Wilson opened with his glorious a cappella masterpiece “Our Prayer” from the fabled “Smile” album and then went into “Heroes and Villains” ( just as he does on the album he belatedly completed in 2004, 37 years after shelving “Smile”).
From there the show held a plethora of Beach Boys cornerstone songs — “California Girls,” “Good Vibrations,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “In My Room,” “Surfer Girl,” “Surfin’ U. S. A.,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows.” The set also included some deeper tracks such as “She Knows Me Too Well,” which gave Matt Jardine one of a couple of moments in the spotlight, and “This Whole World,” which generously shifted the lead vocal to longtime Brian Wilson Band keyboardistsinger Darian Sahanaja.
Beyond the musicians on stage, the show also subtly paid tribute to the Los Angeles studio musicians who eventually came to be called the Wrecking Crew.
The Brian Wilson Band’s accomplished delivery of so many inspired instrumental touches those session pros added to the group’s recordings highlighted the deliciously melodic and propulsive bass line Carol Kaye created for “Sloop John B,” the rhythmically inspired drum part Hal Blaine brought to the same song and so many other contributions that elevated each record and helped to expand the boundaries of what rock music could sound like a half- century ago.
Of course there was no shortage of the vocal harmonies that were and continue to be Wilson’s gift to music.
As he usually does these days, he closed the show with “Love and Mercy,” the song from his 1988 debut solo album that provided the title for director Bill Pohlad’s new biopic about Wilson. The movie has received both raves and pans, but the song remains a thing of beauty, capturing the childlike wonder that’s at the heart of so much of Wilson’s music. (“Love & Mercy” costar Cusack was in Chicago but sent the balloons as well as a giant birthday card positioned to the side of the band that read, “Brian Happy Birthday — Love Ya Brother — Johnny Cusack.”)
Who else could sing a line like “Oh the loneliness in this world, well it’s just not fair” and sound utterly convincing?
Another fragile pop music survivor opened the show: Detroit musician Sixto Rodriguez, whose career was rejuvenated by the 2012 Academy Award- winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.”
Though he was more the stuff of coffeehouses than amphitheaters, Rodriguez offered a humble personality, engaging and sometimes pointed songwriting and an arresting outfit, creating an endearing stage persona — even suggesting what guitarist Slash might have become had he taken the fork in the road toward folkie singer- songwriter rather than hard rocker.
BRIAN WILSON leads proceedings at a show that had an abundance of cornerstone Beach Boys tunes.