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Everyone loves a story of redemption. This probably has something to do with the fact that most of us could use some form of redemption in our own lives, either for ourselves or for other people we care about. In the very recent history of pop culture, the story of Brian Wilson is often held up as a leading example of this kind of story – a valid, albeit slightly exaggerated assertion. The mental breakdown of Wilson in 1966 during the Beach Boys‘ doomed Smile sessions is well documented. What happened after that has been mythologized to a certain extent – Wilson never really completely lost his creative genius – instead it became somewhat stagnant, although he did manage to produce numerous, but scattered flashes of brilliance in the decades that followed. However, the journey his life and career has taken in the last decade has been a true renaissance. A new enthusiasm seems to have taken hold of him, and it’s made a huge difference in both the quality of music he’s been able to produce consistently, and the energy of his live performances. His backing band are composed of a group of musicians who are arguably better than any of the Beach Boys line ups, and they have earned a reputation to match. They lived up to this reputation for their show on December 4th, 2009 at the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage, California. And Wilson didn’t do too badly either.
The show, clocking in at just under two hours, was chock full of the expected Beach Boys hits, but I suspect it offered a lot more quality than a comparable performance by the band who currently tour under the Beach Boys name (which consists of, essentially, Mike Love). Opening with a short introductory version of the title track from Wilson’s recent That Lucky Old Sun album, the show quickly segued into faithful versions of popular classics “California Girls” and “Do It Again,” before moving onto a selection of some of the earliest Beach Boys songs, including a stand-out version of the still-haunting “In My Room.” The songs about surfing and cars were mercifully kept to a minimum, only a handful of the more memorable ones, such as “Catch a Wave” (which, appropriately, provides the musical accompaniment to a popular slot game) and “Little Deuce Coupe” making the cut. My personal distaste for the surfing-and-cars, Mike Love fueled side of the Beach Boys catalogue is limited in it’s hostility, however – I am willing to admit that these songs provide a certain amount of energetic, albeit brainless, fun at times. This was a “Greatest Hits Tour” show, and so most of the songs were indeed amongst Wilson’s best-known, but a few of the Beach Boys’ lesser-known gems such as “The Little Girl I Once Knew” and “Add Some Music To Your Day” did make appearances. Wilson’s solo catalogue was only touched on briefly, with a somewhat muddled version of “I’m Going Home” from the aforementioned Lucky Old Sun (which, incidentally, is Wilson’s best all-new work of the last few decades, at least) appearing in the middle of the set, and “Love and Mercy” from Wilson’s often-overlooked debut solo album closing out the show.
There were a few very minor hiccups during the show, a couple of missed cues that probably hardly anyone noticed, and a few cringe-worthy moments when Wilson tried to hit notes his voice hasn’t been capable of reaching for decades (usually, though, he had the good sense to leave the higher notes to his very capable band mates). But overall, these moments were insignificant – as a whole the show exceeded all reasonable expectations. Several of Wilson’s family members were apparently in the audience as well (this was a show played essentially on home soil), so that might have accounted for some of what seemed to be nerves early on. The audience as a whole was mostly an older group, as might be expected, and seemed to take a while to warm up – for the first half of the show there was one guy near the front of the house, awkwardly standing/dancing alone while the rest of the entire auditorium remained seated. By the end of the show, nearly everyone had joined him. In the end, this might not have been one of the best live performances of Brian Wilson’s career, but it did seem to be one that he and his band were thoroughly enjoying. In live music, that makes all the difference.