Brian Wilson is one of the great composers in the history of popular music, and a reasonable argument can be made that his best work exists in a melodic, harmonic and emotional atmosphere that none of his peers has ever fully permeated. Wilson has suffered greatly in his life, however, and emotional, psychological and substance-related issues have long plagued him. So a Brian Wilson concert in the present day can be a somewhat troubling prospect for those who love the man and his music. There’s a certain amount of trepidation that comes along with the concert ticket: Will Wilson be up to the task? Or has he simply done and seen too much by this point to rise to his former heights?
On Saturday, a full house in the Seneca Allegany Casino Events Center was treated to a lengthy set that found Wilson in mostly good form, surrounded by one of the finest ensembles currently touring. Wilson’s voice is not what it once was, it must be said, and he occasionally appeared a bit uncomfortable, if not downright lost, as he sat center stage behind his grand piano. Yet, on balance, the show was a joyous affair, even if it was mostly a joy of the nostalgic variety that the audibly appreciative crowd experienced.
The man has one of the finest songbooks in existence, and he and his band pulled from that book liberally, touching upon every phase of Wilson’s career, whether he was leading the Beach Boys or working as a solo artist. Wisely, Wilson and his musical director, multi-instrumentalist Paul Mertens, spread around the vocal duties among the 10-piece band, every member of whom could sing, and did. Notable in Wilson’s band was fellow Beach Boy founding member Al Jardine on guitar and vocals, and his son, Matt Jardine, who all but stole the show with his pitch-perfect falsetto singing during “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
The Wilson band was actually more orchestra than conventional rock band – following the template of Wilson’s music from the career-defining “Pet Sounds” forward. The musicians rotated among various keyboards, and assortment of guitars, percussion, French horn, various saxophones, and flute, all the while contributing to the wall of gorgeous vocal harmony that is the realization of Wilson’s eclectic genius.
There were several moments during the show when hardcore Wilson fans had to be thrilled with the song selection and the manner in which he rose to the occasion when the heat was truly on. “Surf’s Up,” the epic that is one of Wilson’s most moving compositions, was received with reverential silence by the crowd, impeccably performed by the band, and sung with vigor and conviction by the star of the show.
More surprises followed in the form of the rarely performed Beach Boys 1967 deep cut, “Wild Honey,” led by former Beach Boy and Rolling Stone Blondie Chaplin, who manned a Gibson Les Paul with authority and led the band through one of the most visceral tunes of the set. “Sail On Sailor” was deeply moving as well, Chaplin again leading the proceedings and bringing a smile to the otherwise stoic Wilson’s face.
One of Wilson’s greatest compositions, “God Only Knows,” was introduced by its writer in a typically self-effacing manner.
“Paul McCartney told me this is his favorite song, so I guess it means something to somebody,” Wilson deadpanned, before delving deeply into the song’s hauntingly addictive melancholy.
The layered vocal harmonies performed by the band during this piece were simply stunning and unerringly on-point.
Wilson has been splitting his shows into two sets on his current tour, but at the Casino, he burned straight through 20-plus songs, stopping only for a brief break before the encore. That encore featured a stream of early Beach Boy hits, including “All Summer Long,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Barbara Ann, “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” For the entirety of the encore, the Events Center crowd was on its feet, and Wilson clearly appeared to be basking in their love.
The show ended with “Love & Mercy,” a gorgeous ballad featured in the recent film of the same name. This was classic Wilson – sad but hopeful, firmly clinging to the belief that music can offer healing to those in need of it.
If this was all nostalgia, then it was nostalgia of the highest order.