Published Jul 05, 2015Every few years, a new album, film or unearthed set of recordings seems to generate a resurgence of interest in the Beach Boys and the group's original leader, composer, arranger and producer Brian Wilson. First, there was 1976's infamous "Brian's Back" campaign in the lead-up to the underwhelming 15 Big Ones. In 1988, the release of Wilson's self-titled solo album and Wouldn't It Be Nice: My Own Story (an autobiography that he later disowned) brought the singer back into the public eye, also exposing his deeply troubling relationship with unorthodox psychotherapist Eugene Landy. More recently, Wilson's completion of the SMiLE album and unexpected release of The SMiLE Sessions have brought accolades as well as renewed focus on his innovative and unusual composition and arranging techniques.
This year has been no different, with the release of Bill Pohlad's Love & Mercy — a superlative biopic featuring both Paul Dano and John Cusack as Wilson, and Paul Giamatti in a particularly nasty turn as the late Landy — shining a spotlight on both Wilson's genius in the recording studio and struggle with mental illness.
A Brian Wilson tour — once an unimaginable proposition — is no longer news: if this is not quite Bob Dylan's Never Ending Tour, Wilson has been on the road consistently since the late '90s, usually accompanied by members of the Wondermints and a large group of backing musicians. However, his latest live excursion includes a new wrinkle: while Beach Boys co-founder Al Jardine has often shared the stage with Wilson in recent years, this tour also features the return of Blondie Chaplin, a one-time official member of the Beach Boys who featured prominently in the group's early '70s tours as well as on Holland and Carl and the Passions — So Tough. In a twist that may be surprising only to those unfamiliar with the California group's long and checkered history of poisonous litigation and intra-band squabbles, the Mike Love-led Beach Boys, currently also on tour, can only claim two official Beach Boys: Love and keyboardist Bruce Johnston.
Taking the stage in front of a mostly full Danforth Music Hall after a 30-minute warm-up set of polite folk-pop from opener Justin Nozuka, Wilson, Jardine and his nine-man backing band immediately kicked into SMiLE's a cappella intro, "Our Prayer," the chorus of complex, heavenly harmonies showing off the unit's impressive vocal chops. Wilson's voice sounded a little rough on the opening lines of "Heroes and Villains," but he warmed up as the song went along and sounded energetic and fully engaged by the time he reached the "In the cantina…" section.
If the first part of the set was mostly dedicated the Beach Boys' summer-defining songs about cars ("Shut Down," "Little Deuce Coupe," "I Get Around" and "Don't Worry Baby," featuring Jardine's son Matt doing more than justice to Brian's falsetto on lead vocals) and girls ("California Girls," "You're So Good to Me," "Surfer Girl"), it also included some surprises for hardcore fans: Sunflower's "This Whole World" — a vocal showcase for longtime Brian Wilson Band member Darian Sahanaja — and Jardine's "California Saga: California", a single from 1973's Holland that barely scraped the Top 100.
Following "One Kind of Love," a well-received ballad from 2015's No Pier Pressure, Chaplin joined Wilson and Jardine as the three shared lead vocals on another new song, the hopeful, nostalgic "Sail Away." Chaplin's addition to the band on lead vocals ("Wild Honey," "Sail On, Sailor") and electric guitar also briefly turned back the clock to the early '70s, when the Beach Boys were a muscular and surprisingly fierce rock band (as documented on 1973's In Concert). Two lesser-known gems from Friends (the brief "Wake the World" and the charming, conversational bossa nova pop of "Busy Doin' Nothin'") and a transcendent rendition of SMiLE's melancholy "Surf's Up" — perhaps Wilson's greatest composition — were welcomed with some of the loudest cheers of the night, but it took a trio of songs from 1966's Pet Sounds and the set-closing "Good Vibrations" to bring much of the audience to its feet.
Wilson and his band returned for a handful of hits that turned the Danforth Music Hall into Toronto's finest California beach party — Jardine sounded positively ageless on "Help Me, Rhonda" — before closing with "Love and Mercy." In its stripped-down live form, the latter has deservedly become something of a modern classic, as much bittersweet expression of longing in a world of loneliness as it is a warm, tender hug from its composer.
Now in his 70s, Wilson will never be the most comfortable or dynamic live performer — Saturday night included a few missed vocal cues and some awkward moments with a malfunctioning teleprompter — but he has never seemed more at peace on stage, generously sharing the spotlight with his former Beach Boys bandmates and skilful, sympathetic backing musicians devoted to recreating even his most intricate arrangements in a live setting. If Love & Mercy offered a poignant portrait of Wilson's personal battles, this night was above all a remarkable showcase for his extraordinary and unparalleled catalogue of musical masterpieces.