Love & Mercy with Brian Wilson
I could have submitted what follows to the Arts Fuse, the online arts magazine that pays me money in exchange for my opinions on music. But what follows is about love, not money; about a transcendent, meaningful moment on which no price can be put. Brian Wilson is my #1 musical idol, my #1 personal hero, and last night my love for him unfolded in a highly moving new chapter during his concert at Lowell Memorial Auditorium.
If you go to see the Rolling Stones in concert, you'll no doubt be amazed to see a 78-year-old Mick Jagger skip and prance and gyrate his impossibly skinny body across the stage. But when you go to see a 79-year-old Brian Wilson enter the stage using a walker with two attendants close by, who help him to move from the walker to his piano bench (behind a piano that is more security blanket than musical instrument), and who then come back at the very end of the show to help Brian get back on his feet and stay near as this musical genius whose work is eternal uses his walker to go backstage, you will hear an enormous, highly vocal standing ovation that will last for minutes; you will feel the immense love and care in that room as a man with nothing to prove fights his daily demons to tour the world and show his fans what it means to overcome struggles, to beat all odds, and to revel and be immersed in the healing power of beautiful music.
I, personally, was in tears at the beginning and convulsive tears at the end during which I was unable to speak. It was a monumental display of courage and appreciation. Or, in the words of his signature closing song, of love and mercy.
It doesn't matter whether the show was sold out or not (there were some empty seats at Lowell Memorial Auditorium, but Brian has been doing good business in the greater Boston area ever since he returned to the road more than two decades ago). It doesn't matter what was played and what was not played (the lack of "Surf's Up" was offset by a couple of rare or never-before-performed-live deep cuts). It doesn't matter whether Brian hit every cue or every note (he didn't). What mattered is that the sum total of the 90-minute show was spellbinding. Having seen him at least a dozen times, there were few surprises but the scope of his repertoire, as always, stands as an amazing testimony of why Brian Wilson is one of the greatest pop composers of any era.
The set began with a rapid run-through (with almost no break or stage banter) of big Beach Boys hits, such as "California Girls," "I Get Around," "Little Deuce Coupe," "Surfer Girl," and "In My Room," the latter of which prompted the first of many standing ovations. Then a few songs from the late 60s/early 70s era that has been documented recently in marvelous deluxe reissues and boxed sets: "Wake the World," "Add Some Music to Your Day," and "Darlin'." But the banner years were not to be denied, as "Don't Worry Baby" and "Do You Wanna Dance" kept the room shaking.
There are many musical and moral reasons to catch a Brian Wilson show instead of a concert by the in-name-only Beach Boys led by supervillain Mike Love; two at the top are that Brian has original Beach Boy Al Jardine (who of all the surviving members of the band retains a voice untouched by age) and early-70s Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin. Blondie, who was a guitarist on a number of Rolling Stones albums and tours for a number of years starting in the late 1990s, comes on stage only for his featured songs: "Feel Flows" and "Long Promised Road" (both from 1971's Surf's Up, which he performs in tribute to late Beach Boys guitarist (and Brian's youngest brother), Carl Wilson, who died of cancer in 1998; and "Sail On Sailor," that enduring, bluesy chestnut from 1972's Holland album, for which Blondie was the original lead vocalist. Though Brian's amazing 10-piece band already includes four guitarists, Blondie comes front of stage during his mini-set and wails ferociously with lengthy solos.
As for Al Jardine, beyond his impeccable background vocals and rhythm guitar, he comes to the fore as the band, after covering a few more late 60s songs, launches into their Pet Sounds set. First, there is "Wouldn't Be Nice," with Brian's original lead vocals being ably covered by Al's son Matt Jardine, who has the daunting job of doing all the falsetto parts. Then Al sings lead on "Sloop John B," and the ovation he earns is from a fanatic audience that knows it was he, the former folkie, who suggested to Brian back in 1966 that the Beach Boys cover the traditional folk song in their own idiom. (Al also later reprised his original lead vocal on "Help Me Rhonda," which remains the best singalong song I've ever experienced, even though it's hard to sing along while wearing a mask.) The Pet Sounds set ends with "God Only Knows," earning another lengthy ovation from an audience that knows Paul McCartney once said it was his favorite song.
There's only one place to go from Pet Sounds and that's to "Good Vibrations," the million-selling, number-one single released on October 10, 1966. That concluded the regular set, but the band never left the stage, as that would have taxed Brian's physical abilities. So they stayed onstage, thanked the crew, introduced the members of the band, and went into their standard encore set of, yes, even more Beach Boys classic hits: "Barbara Ann," "Surfin' USA," and "Fun, Fun, Fun." With the crowd on their feet dancing and singing along, it was like a good old-fashioned houseparty where everyone brings their favorite 45 to play. And then, as always, Brian leaves the audience in a gentle place with the loving embrace of "Love and Mercy."
What keeps Brian Wilson on the road after all these years, with all his well-documented psychological problems and physical ailments? He has more money than God, but he continues to log long miles and fight his famous stage fright. One hopes he gets as much joy from making music as his fans get from hearing it, not to mention from seeing their idol, this legend, in the flesh. He has always spoken of trying to spread love with his music. Last night, he succeeded as always, and also got a tidal wave of love, compassion, and gratitude from his audience. I hope that that is enough.