OAKLAND — Brian Wilson, founder and creative force behind the Beach Boys, changed American music in a way few ever have, with genres as diverse as indie rock and punk considering him an inspiration. In the late ’60s the Beatles considered him their primary competition, writing and recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in response to the Beach Boys’ magnum opus Pet Sounds, and to this day Paul McCartney considers “God Only Knows” one of his favorite songs.
Brian Wilson in concert in 2019 is, as you might imagine, not like Brian Wilson in concert in 1964. Half a century is a long time. But despite his role having evolved from frontman and creative force to singer and pianist who acts as a bandleader, the host of a revue of his life’s work, his overwhelming talent shines through not just in the songs he wrote but in his contributions to their performance.
After Wilson was helped to his piano at center stage—he recently had a series of back surgeries—the large band launched into “California Girls” and “I Get Around,” with Wilson taking the verses originally sung by his cousin Mike Love while his original falsetto parts were understandably sung by younger musicians. But despite the outsourcing of the high notes Wilson very much sounded like himself, which is very much not the norm for singers pushing 80.
Flanking Wilson on stage were his Beach Boys cofounder Al Jardine on one side and Al’s son Matt Jardine on the other, who shared the aforementioned high notes with keyboardist Darian Sahanaja. The younger Jardine generally took Brian Wilson’s old parts, while Sahanaja handled the parts originally sung by Brian’s brother and Beach Boys cofounder Carl Wilson.
After those early Beach Boys hits and “Don’t Worry Baby,” the meat of the show began; while previous tours focused on their early work and Pet Sounds, this tour focused on its follow-up, Friends. Appropriately, they got immediately to “Meant For You,” the title track and “Wake the World”—the first three tunes, in order.
While the crowd lost a bit of enthusiasm from the deep cuts they served to illustrate Wilson’s songwriting prowess; even the songs most don’t know are great. It’s also good that he has the opportunity to give Friends more exposure as he’s cited it as his favorite Beach Boys album.
After the journey through a lesser-known album they got the crowd back with the universally known “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B,” and a show highlight: Wilson personally performing “God Only Knows.” While his voice is a bit shakier than it was in 1966, and while he needed an assist on some of the highest notes, he still brought a level of emotion that no other singer has been able to match.
The next few songs included Blondie Chaplin, former member of the Beach Boys and Rolling Stones (among other bands), who brought a boosted level of movement and energy. He also laid down a legitimately great guitar solo, not just for someone his age but for anyone of any age. He hasn’t been asked to contribute to several of the greatest bands of all time for nothing.
To close out the show, the band did a marathon run of the Beach Boys’ biggest hits: “Good Vibrations,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ USA,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” The sheer volume of upbeat pop classics made it impossible not to have fun; the crowd was dancing, members of the band were dancing, even two people offstage were doing the swim.
It also included Wilson’s best performance of the night, on the first verse of “Surfin’ USA.” The vocals were such a perfect rendition one assumed it was Sahanaja or Matt Jardine. While Wilson’s vocal contributions were generally limited to some slower songs, the early surf rock material seemed to bring out the best in his voice and his mood.
For the final song, the entire band gathered around Wilson’s piano to provide backing vocals while he sang his biggest solo hit, 1988’s “Love and Mercy.” It was poignant that, after a show full of his friends and colleagues performing hit songs he wrote and recorded with a band he hasn’t always gotten along with, it ended with a song that was uniquely and specifically his.
Not just anyone can open for a legend, so Brian Wilson’s opening act was recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees The Zombies.
After a four-song intro—iconic hits “Tell Her No” and “She’s Not There” on either side of 2015’s “Edge of the Rainbow” and the unreleased “Merry Go Round”—they played the entirety of their 1968 hit record, Odessey and Oracle. To make it authentic original drummer Hugh Grundy and original bassist Chris White joined Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone, who never left, and the current iteration of the band.
Blunstone’s vocals especially sounded almost exactly as good as they did in 1968, though Argent adamantly said early on that their classics should be viewed in the context of their continued production of new music to this day. As good as the performance was, however, and as big a treat as the reunion was for Zombies fans, the audience didn’t seem as familiar with the non-single tracks from the album.
But once they got to the album’s final track, the seminal “Time of the Season,” everyone was right back on board and singing along.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.