Concert Review: Expecting the Unexpected — Brian Wilson Delights at Boston’s Blue Hills Bank Pavilion

This was probably the loudest, rockingest Brian Wilson show I’ve ever seen.

Brian Wilson at the Blue Hills Pavilion. Photo:

Brian Wilson at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion. Photo: Mikeal Benoit.

By Jason M. Rubin

There are some artists where in concert you never know what you’ll get. Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, for example, are as capable of giving unnerving performances as they are at delivering mesmerizing ones. Brian Wilson is a little different. His unpredictability is itself highly predictable.

Fortunately, with a crack 11-piece band behind him (all instrumentalists, all but two are vocalists as well), Wilson’s occasional missteps were generally covered over pretty effectively. That said, one of the unexpected aspects of his performance in at Boston’s Blue Hills Bank Pavilion was just how animated he was. Famously stone-faced on stage, Wilson smiled several times and, most interesting, frequently played the piano at which he sits (upon taking the stage he sat down and played a bit while his band was getting ready, proving false the widespread rumor that his keyboard is not even plugged in). In fact, he played so often that it distracted him — to the point that he missed his vocal cues every so often.

Another unexpected (and welcome) aspect of the show was the democratization of lead vocals. On the early Beach Boys albums, Mike Love handled the majority of the lead vocals, with Brian taking the ballads with his sweet falsetto. Over time, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, and Al Jardine got their share of lead vocals as well. When Brian began touring as a solo act in 1999, he sang all the lead vocals, an unfair burden, especially considering that his sweet falsetto had left him some 30 years previously. (In addition to having apparent trouble with his legs – he needed assistance going on and off stage – Wilson appears not to have full breath when he sings, which he often was able to use to his advantage by altering his phrasing.)

On the current tour, Jardine (the Beach Boy with far and away the best voice in 2015) took lead vocals on former Love-sung songs “Shut Down” and “Little Deuce Coupe,” his son Matt (who covers the falsetto parts) expertly handled Wilson’s leads on “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and longtime Brian Wilson Band keyboardist and Wondermints member Darian Sahanaja and 1972-73 Beach Boys member Blondie Chaplin deftly handled a couple of songs associated with Carl Wilson (“Darlin’” and “Wild Honey,” respectively). In addition, the elder Jardine was in great voice when delivering the songs he sang on the original records, such as “Then He Kissed Me” and “Help Me Rhonda” (still the best in-concert singalong number I’ve ever heard), and Chaplin reprised his soulful vocal on “Sail On Sailor.”

I have seen every Wilson tour ,and aside from his two SMiLE appearances, this one proffered the most setlist surprises. Staring off with SMiLE material (an a cappella “Our Prayer” and the full “bicycle rider” version of “Heroes and Villains,” which is not the version typically performed), the lineup offered some Beach Boys chestnuts (“California Girls” and “I Get Around”) before settling into a string of songs rarely heard: “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” “This Whole World,” “Then He Kissed Me,” and “California Saga: California.” “TWW” and “CS:C” are notable for being from the sadly neglected early ’70s Reprise era of the group’s history — they were featured on the Sunflower and Holland albums, respectively.

Later in the set came a three-fer of songs that made me slide down in my seat in disbelief and then leap up screaming for joy. For me, this was the highlight of the show. First, a sensitive reading of “Wake the World,” sung by Jardine, a mellow song from Brian’s 1968 “chill out” Beach Boys album, Friends. That was followed by the never-heard-before-in-concert-by-my-ears “Busy Doin’ Nothin’,” an amazing bossa nova number, also from Friends. The lyrics of this song are a mini-documentary tour of Brian’s consciousness at the time. That cut was followed by “Surf’s Up,” the centerpiece of SMiLE. This tune, for me, is the greatest example of compositional genius from pop music’s sublime genius.

Brian Wilson and band at the Blue Hills Pavilion. Photo:

Brian Wilson and band at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion. Photo: Mikeal Benoit.

Three songs from Wilson’s excellent new album were performed: “One Kind of Love,” featured in the Wilson biopic Love & Mercy; “Sail Away,” which incorporates several interwoven vocal parts, ably performed by Chaplin, Jardine, and Wilson; and “The Right Time,” a wonderful vocal spotlight for Jardine. The set ended with a flurry of Pet Sounds hits (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B,” and “God Only Knows”), and “Good Vibrations.” Amazingly, Wilson’s best vocal was on probably the hardest song he had to sing, “God Only Knows.”

The encore was a medley of knockout summer fare: “All Summer Long,” “Help Me Rhonda”, “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ USA,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” Capping off the evening, as always, was a gentle performance of “Love and Mercy,” with a few topical lyric changes (e.g., “There’s a lot of people getting shot, and it really scares me”). All told, 32 songs in a little more than an hour and a half; it was probably the loudest, rockingest Brian Wilson show I’ve ever seen, thanks in no small part to Chaplin making the most of his three vocal features by supplying blistering guitar solos.

Rodriguez, subject of the popular documentary film Searching For Sugar Man, seemed an odd choice for opening act. He proved to be as quirky a live performer as Wilson, full of tics, false starts, and hard-to-decipher stage patter. Also, like Wilson, he had to be helped on and off the stage, apparently due to vision issues. But the audience, though clearly there for Wilson, cheered wildly for Rodriguez as well, recognizing his songs and shouting their admiration for a man whose compelling story has become well known. In addition to selections from his two albums, Rodriguez, performing solo, delivered interesting versions of “On the Street Where You Live” and “Fever.”

Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 30 years, the last 15 of which has been as senior writer at Libretto, a Boston-based strategic communications agency. An award-winning copywriter, he holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, maintains a blog called Dove Nested Towers, and for four years served as communications director and board member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the national association for graphic arts. His first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. He regularly contributes feature articles and CD reviews to Progression magazine and for several years wrote for The Jewish Advocate.

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