Brian Wilson rocked the house at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus last night in concert. You wouldn't think an over-60 seriously medicated relic from the Beach Boys would give one of the best concerts ever in the history of the world, but Brian and his band did just that to celebrate the 40th anniversary of "Pet Sounds," Wilson's acknowledged masterpiece.
It didn't hurt that I was there with my best friend, a musician himself who, when he hears "God Only Knows" or "You Still Believe in Me," tends to smack himself on the forehead and shake his head in disbelief at their beauty.
For the unintiated, it's hard to reconcile the thought that the composer of "Little Deuce Coupe" is a certifiable musical genius. But it's unequivocally true. Check out the snippets of Wilson's harmonic brilliance at http://www.amazon.com/Perfect-Harmony-Beach-Boys/dp/B000002TLO (click on #14 - "Our Prayer" and you'll see what I mean.) Wilson can hear these fantastic, haunting, unusual harmonies complete in his head. He's Mozart writing about surfing, love, and loneliness.
So the evening alternated between the abiding melancholy that infuses Wilson's work (Listen again to "Surfer Girl." The sense of longing is palpable.) and rocking good times. The set started off with the band grouped around Wilson, singing "Surfer Girl" with nothing but a couple of guitars and some bongos accompanying them. Wilson was animated, and the band was tight, infused with energy and love for the music. After a few more songs "unplugged," they fanned out to their instruments and were joined by original Beach Boy Al Jardine, who led them in a rousing version of Phil Spector's "And Then I Kissed Her," originally released by the Crystals as "And Then He Kissed Me." Jardine was in good voice, and the crowd gave him a well-deserved standing ovation, since this is the first time in recent memory these two original Beach Boys have sung together.
A series of hits (like the amazing "In My Room," one of my all-time favorite songs) and catalog songs (a blissful "Sail on, Sailor") followed in quick succession. The band's joie de vivre took hold of the audience and never let go. That set ended with the magical "Good Vibrations" (another of my faves), but after a quick five-minute instrument change, everyone came back out to do the entire album of "Pet Sounds." Beginning with the sweet/sad "Wouldn't It Be Nice," they lilted through every track on this classic record. Wilson took a moment before "God Only Knows" to say how proud of the song he was. Then he and the band transported the audience to a land of swirling, heavenly harmonies, infused with sadness, gratitude, and wonder. My friend stood up at the end of the song, and everyone in the auditorium followed suit to give a standing ovation. Wilson was visibly touched.
The first encore was perhaps the greatest encore I've had the privelege to witness. With everyone on their feet, Wilson and the band ran through a string of rabble rousing rock 'n roll, starting off with Chuck Berry's "Johnny B Goode," running through "Surfin' USA," "Fun Fun Fun" and a hilarious "Barbara Ann." We all danced and clapped in time, singing along with the familiar lyrics. Heard live and fueled by the love of the audience, these hits crackled with energy and excitement. You remembered what rock 'n roll was really all about.
In a seemingly impromptu final encore, Wilson came out unexpectedly to serenade us with his gorgeous, heartfelt solo hit, "Love and Mercy." It's a song that means even more today, in the midst of war and uncertainty, than it ever did.
"I was lying in my room
And the news came on TV
A lotta people out there hurting
And it really scares me.
Love and mercy, that's what you need tonight.
So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight.
Love and mercy tonight."