As you know, I was worried about this one. Brian Wilson may have been one of pop’s greatest creative geniuses in his day, but that day has long passed. He has been dogged by mental health problems for the past 35 years, and is regularly described as “fragile”. His flat, strange, autocue-driven performance at the Buckingham Palace concert earlier in the week had made me squirm. According to our local paper, this was the most expensive concert ever to take place in Nottingham, with tickets at a whopping fifty quid a pop. Had we shelled out all that dosh, only to bear witness to an embarrassing karaoke freak show?
The opening number (Cabinessence from the 20:20 album, I later discover) is one of the most bewildering and disorientating things I have ever heard on stage. The acoustic is terrible, the sound separation is hopeless, the song is decidedly odd, Brian is an eccentric a figure as he had been on TV, and I just can’t make sense of any of it. This is not a good start.
Obscure album track follows obscure album track. I don’t know any of this stuff – unlike Dymbel and Mir, who recognise every song. Mir in particular is a true Wilson fanatic – this is someone who has both mono and stereo versions of the same original EPs, for instance. Both of them have already seen Brian at the Royal Festival Hall earlier in the year. They know what to expect, and have briefed me accordingly. I am therefore still making huge allowances for the man.
Actually, he’s doing OK. Yes, so there are two autocue screens, mounted on either side of his keyboard – but when you’re an acid casualty survivor with short term memory problems, what are you supposed to do? Without the safety net of an autocue to fall back on, he probably wouldn’t be touring at all. Yes, so his performance style is strange, especially the rather literal hand movements he uses to illustrate the lyrics (tickling the corner of his eye at the word “crying”, for instance). However, his very fragility serves to expose the child within the man, making for a sincere, unaffected, and genuine performance, unvarnished by conscious stage techniques. There is another advantage to this. Wilson’s childlike nature means that, aged 59, he can still get away with singing songs of innocent, youthful wonderment, without ever striking a metaphorical false note. As for the literal, audible false notes – well, we know his voice isn’t what it once was, but there are no major wince-making mistakes, and whatever he lacks in physical technique is made up for in emotional acuity.
Dymbel and Mir assure me that, compared to the London gig, Brian is on top form tonight. Returning to our seats after the interval, Dymbel is even able to convey this to Brian’s wife, who is sitting three seats away from me (on the sixth row of the stalls), along with her sister, Brian’s best friend and his wife. Maybe it’s their presence which is helping to sharpen his focus – apparently there had been times in London when he had looked half asleep. He is also smiling a lot more. In fact, he looks luminously happy throughout – as well he might be, as tonight’s crowd are hugely enthusiastic, with frequent standing ovations between songs. Mrs. Wilson is particularly demonstrative and supportive, rising to her feet after every number and extending her outstretched arms to him, willing him on.
The night starts clicking into place for me with the first number I recognise, In My Room. It is performed exquisitely well, with beautiful backing harmonies from the band, and takes me straight back to the summer of 1975, when my room was my sanctuary, my album collection was almost my whole life, and my Best Of The Beach Boys LP was never off the turntable. The unexpected poignancy touches me deeply. The acoustic and the sound mix have also been steadily improving, and the performers and audience have begun to create a mood which is very special. The other highlights of the first part of the show are a rapturously received Heroes And Villains and Surf’s Up, concluding with Do It Again, our first proper knees-up of the night.
So, with Part One having pleased the diehard fans with interestingly selected back catalogue material, it’s time for some more familiar stuff. Accordingly, Part Two consists of a straight run-through of the Pet Sounds album from beginning to end, followed by Good Vibrations. With the possible exception of the title track, which is a bit of a mess, It is a magnificent performance, with I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times (how true, how true!) as its standout moment. During God Only Knows, I observe each member of the superb ten-piece backing band. Their expressions say it all. They are lost in the music, absolutely loving what they are doing, and presumably aware of the honour they have in recreating some of the greatest pop music ever recorded. The band radiate good-humoured enjoyment throughout. You sense that this is a happy tour.
You also sense, with relief, that Brian is not the re-animated zombie that you were worried he might have been. Rather than being pushed around from venue to venue, and being told what to do by those around him, he is clearly in artistic control here. The song selections are his, the band is his, and it is his presence which sets the mood for everyone else on stage. However, the band have successfully made one request, as I Know There’s An Answer becomes Hang Onto Your Ego once again (to my initial confusion, until Dymbel explains). This pleases the fans no end.
Part Three is devoted to uptempo, celebratory Beach Boys classics: Help Me Rhonda, I Get Around, Fun Fun Fun, Barbara Ann, Surfing USA, stuff like that. We’re all on our feet, frugging away, rolling back the years. The man has delivered in spades. This is one living legend who hasn’t let us down. The legend remains intact.