Brian Wilson – Nottingham Royal Centre – Friday June 7th, 2002

For Fraser’s review at Blogjam, go here.
For Lilou’s review (in French, but well worth the effort) at blogmebogmoi, go here.

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.

Yes – Magnification Tour – Nottingham Royal Centre, Saturday December 8, 2001.

Jon Anderson: “I was interviewed one time by this Finnish lady who said to me (adopts accent) ‘I listened to your music all the way through the 70s and I never understood one word of what you were singing about!’ So I said to her: ‘Well, I didn’t understand a word of it either!’” (Gales of audience laughter)

I was prepared for all sorts of things, but I never expected Yes to show a sense of, you know, Fun. Yet all the people on stage at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall – band and orchestra alike – were clearly having a ball. Bassist Chris Squire – wearing a flouncy black smock over skin-tight lycra leggings tucked into Doc Marten boots – was having more of a ball than most. Every now and again (particularly during Starship Trooper and Ritual), he would start galumphing round the stage, legs akimbo, alternately pulling fearsome “I AM THOR, GOD OF THUNDER!” type poses and cracking into broad “Isn’t this just the best job in the world?” type grins. In a flash of awful clarity, you suddenly saw where New Order’s Hooky stole his best moves.

In stark contrast, at the opposite side of the stage, Steve Howe’s aura was one of professorial detachment and studious concentration (though occasionally he would forget himself and allow a broad toothy grin to spread over his face). With his once much-envied tresses now receding, showing a surprisingly high domed forehead, he seemed to be morphing into an unholy cross between Stephen Hawking and Sven-Goran Eriksson. Midway through the third song of the night, he was already onto his ninth guitar (K was counting). By the end of the show, he had got through thirteen of them. Sometimes, he would have one guitar still strapped to him, but would actually be playing a different guitar in front of that, set up on a stand. His guitar technician, an almost constant presence on stage throughout, must surely be the hardest working roadie in show business.

Meanwhile, Anderson skipped about the stage like the irrepressibly cheerful space pixie he always was, his singing as high and clear as ever. He was only flummoxed once. Yes fans being the obsessives that they are, the real diehards down the front already knew the order of the set. So they were well aware that on some nights, the band weren’t bothering to play Gates Of Delirium (from 1974’s Relayer album) – a complex and challenging work, even by Yes standards, which I find almost impossible to listen to, but which can reduce other grown men to tears (I’ll name no names here…) So, when the appointed time arrived, shouts of “GATES!” immediately started reverberating round the front stalls. One bunch even unfurled a huge black banner, with “GATES OF DELIRIUM” painted in huge letters. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a designated “Gates night”. The orchestra didn’t even have the sheet music with them, so we were told. Anderson had thought they could all get away with it. Big mistake! Howls of protest. One very uncomfortable looking space pixie wringing his hands and squirming with embarrassment, at a loss for words.

This aside, there was, as they say, a lot of love in the room. The audience were mostly men in their forties, reliving their adolescence with unselfconscious glee (and, latterly, gimpy dancing). Their partners were, to a woman, all bearing the same Brave Smile. It was very strange being in the company of people whose lips didn’t automatically curl into a sneer at the very mention of the band’s name. Strange, and curiously liberating. Why, it almost felt like Pride marches in the late eighties!

The band opened with the first song of theirs which I ever heard (aged 12) – Close To The Edge. The experience of actually hearing it being played live in front of me, 27 years after buying the album, was overwhelming. For all of its duration (and it’s a long piece – maybe 20 minutes or so), I was on the brink of tears. I later discovered that I wasn’t the only one. The band played it superbly. The orchestral backing, which seemed so restrictive on their current album (Magnification), worked magnificently well on stage – it was a balanced, integral part of the whole.

I was watching the members of the orchestra closely. Sometimes, when a rock act adopts an orchestra, you can see a very particular expression on their faces. It’s a sort of distant disdain. It says: “My God, the things I have to do to pay the rent…” But not with this orchestra. I honestly think they, uh, dug it. Respect!

Other highlights: And You And I (the orchestra worked beautifully well on this), Ritual (Nous Sommes Du Soleil), and a final, ecstatic Roundabout. In fact, even the new stuff sounded good. In fact, there weren’t really any boring moments at all. And I was completely prepared for boring moments. But this band know how to entertain – and by God, they can play their instruments. Technically, they were stunning. You remembered why you used to like “progressive” rock – because it was an exercise in stretching one’s capabilities to the very limits, and pushing back the boundaries of what a rock band was capable of producing. Is that really so very wrong?

And one other thing, which also struck me when I saw Gong last month. Somehow, the spirit of optimism was still intact and going strong. How the hell did that happen? I’d forgotten how important that sense of optimism was to the genre – of a simple faith in human progress and evolution. Hey, we weren’t to know what was just round the corner: punk, Thatcher, style fascism, the death of the socialist dream, all the rest of it (and if you really want to know what happened, read Jonathan Coe’s superb “The Rotters Club” – all will be explained). We might have been naïve then, but it felt so good to reconnect, just for one night, with something which meant so much at the time, and for which we have spent far too much time apologising.

In the pub after the show, eight of us sat round having the most animated conversation about prog acts we had loved. Gentle Giant! Greenslade! Camel! Focus! Gryphon! And if you must, Rush! (Though there was a major schism over that last one.) At the end of the night, as we were heading off home, someone said “God, we’re sad bastards, aren’t we?” To which I replied: no – it’s the people who shut themselves off to stuff just because it’s unfashionable who are the sad bastards. Not us!