It's not difficult to hear why Pet Sounds, celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer, is considered to be one of the greatest albums in music history. It was a game changer upon its release in 1966, a marked departure point for the Beach Boys and a defining pinnacle of Brian Wilson's career as a songwriter and composer.
It's also not difficult to understand that such a momentous anniversary would bring Brian Wilson back out on tour to perform the album live in its entirety one last time. Upon its release, though songs like "God Only Knows," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," and "Sloop John B" were immediately drafted into the Beach Boys' live show, the album had never been performed live in its entirety until the first time Wilson took it out on the road in 2000, with a local orchestra supporting it in each city.
This past Saturday night, 74-year-old Brian Wilson and his band again brought Pet Sounds to the Celebrity Theatre and performed it to a sold out crowd. This time, Wilson skipped the orchestra and armed himself with a different musical arsenal. The Wondermints (Mike D'Amico, Probyn Gregory, Nick Walusko, Darian Sahanaja), Wilson's longtime touring band, were present, and founding Beach Boy Al Jardine was along for the ride in addition to music legend Billy Hinsche, former Beach Boy ('72-'73) Blondie Chaplin, and seasoned veterans Gary Griffin, Nelson Bragg, and Paul Von Mertens. The true secret weapon on this tour, however, is Matthew Jardine, the son of Al and a man who would stun the Celebrity Theatre crowd with his amazing falsetto throughout the night. It must be said that though Wilson's stage voice is declining, he carries the mid-range as best he can. He really lets the band take over the sound while he sits at his piano, more like the composer than a performer. This was a far different show from the one Wilson played a decade-and-a-half ago, where he and Jeff Foskett handled nearly all the vocals.
It was Wilson's first return to Phoenix since his 2012 reunion show with the Beach Boys. This show followed the Brian Wilson formula for full-album performances as he's done before with this album, as well as with SMiLE in 2004. He played a roaring set of hits and rarities that would have been worth the price of admission alone, followed by Pet Sounds in its entirety, followed by a fantastic encore.
The first set began with the SMiLE-era invocation of "Our Prayer," which shifted immediately into "Heroes and Villains" (the first two tracked from the album), a pretty surreal way to start the evening. To continue into a stranger vein, Blondie Chaplin stepped up to the mic and belted out a cover of Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High," which the Beach Boys recorded in 1980 but never released. At that point, Wilson and company launched into the hit machine part of the show with "California Girls," and the band reproduced the music from the original in excruciating detail.
"Now here's a rock 'n' roll song for you," Wilson cheerily announced before launching into "Dance, Dance, Dance," and it was the first song that really put Matt Jardine in the spotlight. It struck me, as I looked at the crowd that ran from infants to octogenarians and everything in between, that this concert was a nice break for everyone inside the theater. While the musicians were rolling through hits like "I Get Around," "Shut Down," and "Little Deuce Coupe," all songs that put Al Jardine clearly in the spotlight, the performance recalled simpler times that never existed. One of the great things about the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson is the California mythology they created. The songs became a musical fantasyland where the troubled times that surrounded the music's creation didn't seem to exist. This evening was right in line with that sentiment. When Wilson sings something so pure and innocent as "the bad guys know us and they leave us alone," it brings you into that childlike enchanted fantasy.
Soon, it was time for the main event. When I spoke to Brian Wilson a couple of weeks ago he said, "I'm really proud of my band because they know the album so well that they can duplicate it on stage." He was not kidding around about that in any capacity. The band knows it note for note, timpani for timpani, sleigh bell for sleigh bell. Even the theremin was there. It became clear right from the start that Matt Jardine was going to take the starring role in this production. As soon as "Wouldn't It Be Nice" exploded, his voice rang clear and bright across the crowd; essentially, he took the place of young Brian Wilson's voice throughout this live rendition. This was true straight through the crushing, sentimental trio of confessional tracks that follow in "You Still Believe In Me," "That's Not Me," and "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)." Wilson said, "His girl got hurt and now he's waiting when she can love again," before launching into "Waiting For The Day," which is a pretty early song about the pains of hanging in the friend zone.
"Let's Go Away For a While" is one of the most fascinating instrumentals of that musical era, and the music conveys a feeling of escape, a desire for adventure, a longing to get out. It was what we were all doing there that evening. It was our theme song. It never needed lyrics.
With the presence of Al Jardine and his wunderkind, I had no doubts that I was going to be blown away by "Sloop John B," and I was. At the end of the song Al Jardine announced, "Side one of the record is done!"
"This is the best song I ever wrote, it's called 'God Only Knows,'" Wilson said with childlike wonder. Wilson handled the lead and deferred to Matt Jardine for the high parts. It was clear that the band could have handled the song, but it was beautiful that Wilson sang what is regarded by many as one of the best songs of all time. The crowd gave a standing ovation after it finished. The timeless "I Know There's An Answer" followed in short order, one of the more rousing songs on the album that wasn't a single. "Mike Love sang this next song on the record. He couldn't be here tonight. He's got his own tour," Wilson said, introducing "Here Today."
One of the most heart-wrenching songs on the album is the confessional, self-reflective "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" which becomes even more heartbreaking live, watching Wilson perform it. Wilson traded vocals with Matt and Al Jardine, and the lyrics seemed so poignant and sad. This was underscored by Al finishing the song singing "I guess he just wasn't made for these times." I'm not even sure if Wilson was made for this world, much less the times, honestly. This was followed by an intense live rendition of the instrumental title track, which took a little more liberty with the original than I've witnessed before.
"This is the last song on the Pet Sounds album," Wilson said, before launching into the mournful ballad "Caroline, No."
It was a moving final moment for the last time nearly everyone in the crowd would hear this performed live. It was as beautiful and stirring in Celebrity Theatre as it is in your bedroom, late-night, with headphones on. The train roared through, Banana and Louie barked and barked and the performance of the album was complete. Leaving little time to soak in all that had occurred they wasted no time before finishing the second set with "Good Vibrations," the single that followed Pet Sounds in 1966. People were already on their way up for a standing ovation, and this got everyone on their feet. It was one of the finest performances of the evening.
Wilson was assisted off the stage and the band followed, but not for long; soon, the band returned as they were introduced to the crowd one by one. Finally, Wilson returned, announcing "I threw my back out the other day. I can hardly walk. Now we're going to do the encore!" With that they plowed through five Beach Boys hits that all preceded Pet Sounds. They tore through "All Summer Long," "Help Me Rhonda," "Barbara Ann," "Surfin' USA," and "Fun, Fun, Fun." The evening ended with the requisite set closer for nearly every Brian Wilson show, "Love & Mercy." He struggled with the lyrics a little bit, but the message and the beauty of the song came through in spades. It's a powerful song with a powerful message that's needed now more than ever.
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It was as bittersweet an evening as it was magical. It's the last time Wilson will take Pet Sounds out on the road, but does it mean it's the last time he will tour or not? The 50th Anniversary Pet Sounds Tour concludes in October, followed swiftly by the release of his new autobiography I Am Brian Wilson. I asked Wilson what he had planned once he wraps up the tour and releases the book.
"We're going to record an album of rock 'n' roll songs!" he said excitedly.
So he's headed back to the studio to make another album. I'd gladly welcome a tour of Wilson focusing on his solo material to support a new album, but I'm not sure how much touring he has left in him. The man is always full of surprises. No one expected he would get this far, least of all Wilson himself. He just seems to want to give the world endless aural beauty and keep on doing it for however long he can. While he may not have the voice he once had, he has enough heart and soul to transcend that.