Brian WilsonLiverpool Exhibition Centre 28/7/17
It’s a characteristically rainy summer’s eve in Liverpool that welcomes Beach Boys founding member BRIAN WILSON to its Richter-grey shores. The second of two back-to-back gigs christening the conference-centre-as-venue, tonight it’s the singer, songwriter, producer and pop culture icon who graces the waterfront venue, playing one of pop music’s most sumptuous and sophisticated albums – 1966’s Pet Sounds – in full.
At first, the Exhibition Centre seems like a bit of a soulless choice for Wilson, whose last Liverpool appearance was in the Art Deco surrounds of the Philharmonic, but, oddly enough, it works. The venue portion of the Exhibition Centre consists of a huge room partitioned in two – one half is the performance space; the other is like an American county fair, all ice cream stands and chip vans – but, in all honestly, it adds to the occasion. What could be more wholesome and American Dream-like than seeing some original Beach Boys while chowing down on a hot dog?
Essentially broken into two halves, the first part of the night encompasses a greatest hits parade. The inimitable California Girls opens proceedings, and, as you’d expect with Wilson’s history and having heard recollections of recent performances, it’s the wall of musicians and voices around him that carry the show. Much of the heavyweight vocals come from Matt Jardine (son of original Beach Boy Al Jardine, who’s also present tonight), whose falsetto on the hair-raising Don’t Worry Baby is especially immaculate. Jardine Jr. doesn’t hit a bum note all night – nor do the ensemble of musicians who surround Wilson in what feels like more of a celebration of his life and work than his own headline gig.
The band run through their “songs about cars” section (namely, I Get Around and Little Deuce Coupe) and land at In My Room, which is introduced by Wilson as the first song he ever wrote. An introspective, waltzing cut, tonight – as it is on record – it’s disconcerting and stunning in equal measure. Towards the end of this greatest hits run, one segment dissolves into some bad dad rock territory as Sail On, Sailor and co. get an outing, but, looking around the room, the amount of intergenerational groups present almost legitimises it. It’s all a bit cabaret for 15 minutes and Blondie Chaplin produces some dubious Jagger posturings, but it’s fun for all the family and people seem to be lapping it up, appetites fully whetted for the performance of Pet Sounds that comes after a short interval.
Pioneering in its production and arrangements, Pet Sounds also encompasses the vastness of human emotions; lyrical complexity and personal insecurity sit seamlessly with honeyed harmonies and luscious orchestration. Its sumptuousness hasn’t dated – from the irresistible Wouldn’t It Be Nice to the buccaneering fun of Sloop John B, it’s aired faultlessly by Wilson’s band, before the 75-year-old takes the lead vocal himself on God Only Knows, introducing it as the greatest song he’s ever written. Wilson’s warm voice cracks here and there and his enunciation isn’t what it used to be (whose septuagenarian vocal chords are?) but his voice doesn’t need to be perfect. To have crafted these songs is enough; to be on stage having lost such a huge portion of his life to mental illness, drug misuse and psychological manipulation, is more than enough. He’s met with rapturous applause.
I Know There’s An Answer and Here Today with their Motown inflections have the crowd swaying before the tempo slows a little again. I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times almost feels too personal to hear Wilson sing in a live setting. It pushes the listener to the edge of unease – to hear Wilson take lead vocals, sat in the middle of the stage looking unassuming, singing “Sometimes I feel very sad” is too real. The hopelessness, confusion and sadness wrapped up in the lyrics he wrote over 50 years ago, the strain in his aged voice – it all feels like he is so exposed. After the instrumental title track, Caroline, No continues in the vein. You can’t help but hope that, at least at some point in his life, Wilson shared in the happiness that his music brings to so many people – a small portion of whom are gathered tonight, receptive to and fully appreciative of his presence.
Giving Lana Del Rey’s new record a spin in the office, with its recurring themes of doomed love, I thought aloud “Since when has tragedy been so fashionable?” The quip back was “Probably the past 50 years”. Really, the Greeks were hammering it home in the 5th Century. Wilson’s life story is one that’s littered with real tragedy – which makes the fact that he is on stage and giving his songs a real go at feel all the more triumphant. His history also makes you grateful that there are resources available to artists and that stigmas around mental illness are being peeled back, albeit slowly. There’s a bittersweetness to proceedings. To think that the person responsible for some of the happiest and most complete pop songs out there – Surfin USA, Help Me Rhonda, Fun Fun Fun, California Girls and I Get Around which bookend Wilson and co.’s set tonight – hasn’t had the happiest or even most complete lives, feels almost incomprehensible. Still, his appearance is testament to both his resilience and the enduring quality of his songwriting. Nobody leaves this gig without a smile on their face.