Brian Wilson Performs Iconic Beach Boys Album Pet Sounds For Last Time in D.C.

Photos and Review By Max Stewart

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The musical genius of Brian Wilson cannot be overstated. He is one of a select few humans on this planet that has the ear to write sophisticated Pop songs as if they just naturally flow out of him (“Good Vibrations” alone could have earned him a seat at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame table). Nowhere is this more apparent than the universally-acclaimed 1966 symphonic masterwork, Pet Sounds.

This legendary album will forever be memorialized as a groundbreaking moment in the history of recording, where intricate orchestration and Phil Spector-influenced ‘Wall of Sound’ arrangements managed to ‘click’ alongside catchy Pop songs to take listeners on a 35 minute musical journey. But, hey, don’t take my word for it…

  • Paul McCartney: “It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. I love that album so much. It may be going overboard to say it’s the classic of the century… but to me, it certainly is a total classic record that is unbeatable in many ways.” (“God Only Knows” is McCartney’s favorite song).
  • Eric Clapton: “I consider Pet Sounds to be one of the greatest Pop LPs to ever be released. It encompasses everything that’s ever knocked me out and rolled it all into one.”
  • Elton John: “For me to say that I was enthralled would be an understatement. I had never heard such magical sounds, so amazingly recorded. It undoubtedly changed the way that I, and countless others, approached recording. It is a timeless and amazing recording of incredible genius and beauty.”

I think you get the picture, Pet Sounds left its mark in a big way. So when Brian Wilson announced he would be performing the album for the last time as part of a 50th Anniversary of its release, I sprung at the opportunity like a surfer hitting the beach on the first day of summer.  

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The first batch of songs at D.C.’s Lincoln Theater consisted mostly of early Beach Boys’ classics (“California Girls”, “Help Me, Rhonda”, “Surfer Girl”, “In My Room”) as well as some deeper cuts (“Let Him Run Wild”, “Feel Flows”) that set a fast pace for the night as the unforgettable sing-alongs came one after another a la waves on a windy afternoon in Californi-a (and down Doheny Waaaay). The theater crowd was primarily seated for the melodic and fun-loving first set, but a few Hawaiian shirt-wearing Baby Boomers couldn’t help but get up and dance like it was 1963.

Sure, Brian Wilson’s voice is not the same as it was during the Sixties. That said, he still made sincere vocal contributions from his piano bench throughout the show during key sections of the songs, and it is obvious how proud and gracious he is to continue to have the opportunity to perform his body of work. Moreover, he has the help of a stellar band that includes founding Beach Boys guitarist / vocalist Al Jardine (who took the wheel on vocals for an impressive “Little Deuce Coupe”) and short-lived Beach Boys member Blondie Chaplin (who sang a soulful version of “Sail On, Sailor”). Al Jardine’s son Matthew proved he could hit the high-reaching falsetto parts that the night required, including a spot-on rendition of “Don’t Worry Baby”.

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After 19 songs mostly about cars / girls / the beach, there was a 20 minute set break to let people hit the restroom or get another glass of Chardonnay. There is no denying those upbeat All-American lyrical themes made the Beach Boys FM radio champions of the Sixties. Wilson, however, recognized that the ‘fun in the sun’ tunes couldn’t last forever, and bravely chose to delve into more introspective, non-traditional Pop endeavors when he wrote Pet Sounds (much to some of the Beach Boys’ chagrin…). He was almost a prophet in that way, clearing a path for decades of multi-layered production on ambitious Rock and Pop albums (*cough* Sgt. Peppers *cough*). It nevertheless seemed fitting that there was a break in the night to mark the transition of the Beach Boys’ sound from catchy summertime anthems of the early Sixties to the deep, multifaceted songs on Pet Sounds.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, then we wouldn’t have to wait so long,” as the first lines of the album opener “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” soared through the historic theatre, audience members raced down the aisles back to their seats to sing along. I cannot say enough about the competency of Wilson’s 11-piece band; they honestly nailed the complex instrumentation of Pet Sounds in a live setting, particularly on “Let’s Go Away For Awhile”, “I Know There’s An Answer”, and “Pet Sounds”. The all-hands-on-deck vocal ending of “You Still Believe in Me” resulted in every bit of spine-tingling emotion that fans should hope for. The album’s less commercial songs may not have fit cleanly if they were piecemealed into a Beach Boys set, but the collective unit of the tracks on the album flowed seamlessly when played in sequential order. It was hard to resist pinching myself while Wilson sang lines such as “Hoist up the John B’s sail, see how the main sail sets”, “Don’t talk, put your head on my shoulder”, “I just wasn’t made for these times”, and “You didn’t think that I could sit back and let you go”. But nothing could top seeing Wilson sing “God Only Knows”, arguably the best song of all time, to a standing ovation and likely more than a couple of teardrops. Overall, the performance of Pet Sounds exceeded expectations thanks to Wilson’s heartfelt vocal touches and a highly-polished band.

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After the final track of the record (the heavy-hitting love song, “Caroline, No”), the band retreated behind the curtain once again before musical director / multi-instrumentalist Paul Von Mertens entertainingly introduced each member back to the stage individually for the encore. The night ended on some high notes that gave the crowd one last chance to sing and dance in the same room as a musical icon (“Good Vibrations”, “Barbara Ann”, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, “Fun, Fun, Fun”).  The final song, “Love and Mercy”, was a poignant way to cap off a joyous night (Wilson has said it is “the most spiritual song he has ever written”).

If you have ever watched the biopic film Love & Mercy (highly recommended), you know that Wilson has overcome a tumultuous past that began with an overbearing and abusive father who tried to micromanage the Beach Boys’ career. Furthermore, Wilson quit touring during the Sixties due to anxiety so he could focus on the band’s songwriting, had a damaging bout with drugs, became an overweight recluse in the Seventies, endured a brainwashing 24-hour psychologist that controlled his life before ultimately being revoked of his California professional licence due to ethical violations and patient misconduct… BUT he has now appeared to find peace thanks in part to his wife Melinda Ledbetter who he married in 1995. For a man that has accomplished and endured so much, it almost feels selfish for fans to even expect him to tour at 74.

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Based on recent interviews I had seen with Brian Wilson, he appears to be reserved yet enlightened in his older years. As expected, he did not provide much onstage reflection and in-between-song tidbits on that May night in Washington, D.C. It is as if Brian Wilson flew so high during his monumental songwriting heyday of the Beach Boys’ success, that he got burned by the sun. Not to say he is distant and bitter, quite the opposite. It is clear he appreciates his fans, but he is also perfectly comfortable with his place in music history and content in his reticent demeanor. Good for him. And, you know what, God Bless him. In the days where the Top 40 hits include up to 10 “songwriter” credits per song, God only knows how long it will be until we are graced with as generous and fruitful a musician as Brian Wilson in Contemporary Pop.  

If you were to catalog a list of the most influential modern songwriters into a time capsule, Brian Wilson has to be in the Top 5, with the likes of McCartney, Lennon, Dylan, and Richards / Jagger. Despite the fact that his voice does not have the range it did during the Beach Boys’ reign on top of the charts, Brian Wilson’s mere presence alongside the timeless songs he gifted the world coupled with a phenomenally-talented band is reason enough to see this production live.

Check out Brian Wilson on tour:

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Brian Wilson – 5.3.17 – Washington, D.C. – Lincoln Theatre

Set 1: California Girls, Dance, Dance, Dance, I Get Around, Shut Down, Little Deuce Coupe, Little Honda, Help Me, Rhonda, Do It Again, In My Room, Surfer Girl, Wake the World, Add Some Music to Your Day, California Saga: California, Don’t Worry Baby, Let Him Run Wild, Feel Flows, Wild Honey, Sail On, Sailor

Set 2 (Pet Sounds): Wouldn’t It Be Nice, You Still Believe in Me, That’s Not Me, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder), I’m Waiting for the Day, Let’s Go Away for Awhile, Sloop John B, God Only Knows, I Know There’s an Answer, Here Today, I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, Pet Sounds, Caroline, No

Encore: Good Vibrations, Do You Wanna Dance?, Barbara Ann, Surfin’ U.S.A., Fun, Fun, Fun, Love and Mercy

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