Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys brought his California charm by way of a 38-song set list to the Sydney Opera House last night. The tour is to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the legendary album “Pet Sounds”, but could it still be a success without the rest of the full band and so many decades later?
Brian Wilson’s music has been reliably superb since The Beach Boys’ debut in 1962. It was the California-isation of sun, beach, girls and cars was an easily adoptable sensation by the Australian market and this formula would work for nine albums up until 1966’s Pet Sounds. Increasing side-effects of mental illness steered Wilson to experimental instrumentals with trains and dogs barking that would feature on this ground-breaking LP alongside lyrics of crying, heartbreak and death. It notoriously led to immense tension within The Beach Boys, as Wilson had asked the rest of the band for time to rest and discontinue touring so he could record the next album by himself. Alas, the album was released and over the past five decades, it has amassed a mythical stature among iconic records.
Just as The Beach Boys are notoriously remembered for, the key word of the night would be harmonisation. The two-hour night began with the choral harmonies of “Our Prayer” and progressed into the hits “California Girls” and “I Get Around”, which had the sold-out Opera House audience allured from the beginning. It was apparent from the opening numbers that the nine piece backing band would be the immediate presence for the night. When Wilson could be heard (his voice felt swallowed in the mix), the maturation and breaking of his voice was evident, although this didn’t ruin the evening. Instead, it added warmth and depth to the harmonies that were created by up to nine people.
Wilson was joined by another Beach Boys comrade – Al Jardine, whose son was the lead backing vocalist. Matt Jardine did a near-perfect carrying of the harmonies for the night and soloed on “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. They were tight and well-controlled and sounded eerily similar to the studio versions of the tracks.
“We are now going to play Pet Sounds in its entirety”, Wilson said as lights dimmed after an hour-long greatest hits set. Studio chatter of the band from 1966 played as the start to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was teased in pitch-darkness. It was an aural experience that was met with cheers from the crowd. “God Only Knows” was one of two times in the night was allowed for Wilson to sing over a quietened background. It was broken, raw and sensitive and culminated in a standing ovation from the audience. Wilson nonchalantly assured us there was still half of the album to come and we had to move on.
Blondie Chaplin – part-time Beach Boys and Rolling Stones musician, appeared sparingly throughout the night but when he did, his swagger was drenched in freshness. His burgundy suit tightly gripped his slender frame as he strutted around the stage and in between other members to deliver guitar solos.
Pet Sounds was an ethereal body of work to witness live. Its sound is not as much a memory of the past as the sun-filled harmonies of The Beach Boys earlier hits are. But we weren’t given much time to dwell on it. The band immediately broke into “Good Vibrations” before an encore break that presented us with the dance-along medley of “Help Me, Ronda” into ”Barbara Ann” into ”Surfin’ U.S.A.” into ”Fun, Fun, Fun” that broke percussionist Nelson Bragg‘s tambourine and sent the metal zils flying across the stage.
The night concluded with just Brian Wilson, his voice and his piano on “Love and Mercy”. As his voice occasionally broke, the track reflected the sentiment of the night; it became more penetrating and passionate.
Photo by Dan Boud