I was eight years old when Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys released the album, "Pet Sounds." By then the band already had a huge catalog of hits and this album was meant to compete on a serious level with The Beatles, "Rubber Soul" -- and it did.
Unfortunately, it was not the commercial success Wilson had hoped for. In 1972 it was re-released as part of a package with the Beach Boys album, "Carl and the Passions - So Tough," an atypical record for the band that had little involvement from Brian.
I was in high school when I found that set in a cut-out bin and it has been a favorite ever since. It wasn't a musical choice that I could share with my friends because they were all listening to anything but the Beach Boys. The fans of the radio hits couldn’t have cared less about the album that Paul McCartney repeatedly called one of his favorite albums.
But at the Wellmont Theatre Thursday night, you couldn't take a step without bumping into a die-hard fan of that record -- and the man who recorded it. Although the hall was only half full, the ones who were there clearly loved Brian Wilson.
Those fans, many of them musicians themselves, were willing to forgive Wilson, now 69, when his performing skills faltered. When pressed, one such performer and songwriter agreed that Wilson's voice wanders from off-key to out of tune, but still praised the performance. Although Wilson’s demeanor was impassive and his eyes stayed mostly glued to the prompter, he seemed to be happy to be there and showed how it meant to him that his fans were dancing to his tunes. Not surprisingly, some of the most memorable moments of the evening were when he performed his old, beloved classics like, "I Get Around."
Although the show was geared towards his newest album, "Brian Wilson Re-imagines Gershwin," the first set ran through the back catalog. "Little Deuce Coupe," "Surfer Girl," "Don't Worry Baby," “Fun Fun Fun," "Heroes and Villains" and "California Girls" were a few of the tunes that benefitted from the large and talented band that nailed the harmonies and arrangements. Some songs were not as successful, however, like "God Only Knows," a favorite from "Pet Sounds" (Pete Townshend of The Who called it "simple and elegant, it was stunning when it first appeared and it still sounds perfect") that suffered from Brian's diminished vocal capacity.
But the father and 21-year-old son who drove in from Wilkes-Barre called the show, "fantastic -- the best we've ever seen him." And they've seen him a lot -- nine times for dad and six times for his son. Another younger, heavily-tattooed fan said that he was "happy to see that Brian is happy, functional and in a good place."
The Gershwin portion of the show opened and closed with an intriguing a cappella version of "Rhapsody In Blue." In between, he performed the album in its entirety, with a string section filling out the sound. Each song had its own feel. "It Ain't Necessarily So” had a bluesy rock vibe while "They Can't take That Away From Me," got the Beach Boys treatment. "I've Got A Crush On You," was transformed with a doo-wop arrangement and "I've Got Plenty of Nuthin," brought in a banjo and harmonica for an instrumental version with a barnyard feel. The live versions did not differ dramatically from the album, but had a lively energy that brought out the best in the arrangements.
When the concert was over, Wilson simply walked offstage while the band performed the wordless "Rhapsody." He came back, though, for an encore of oldies that had the place up and rocking once again.
When it was over, I realized that I, too, was glad Brian was happy and functional and that I was there clapping for him. After all, not many people have produced a record that I love as much as "Pet Sounds." Wilson has hinted that he may retire from touring after this one, so if you feel the same way you should get out and applaud Brian. I think he'll be happy you came.