In Newcastle’s Times Square—it struggles to compete with its American counterpart, but it makes do—a stage has been assembled and hastily barricaded off. A drizzly enclave in the North East is a strangely incongruous place to see Brian Wilson in the flesh, given that in the popular imagination he is virtually indivisible from the California he rhapsodizes about in his work, but seeing him at all in old age is surprising. His tragically comprehensive wringing out in the 70s and 80s—drug addiction, mental illness, creative roadblocks: the works—has thankfully mellowed into more peaceful, productive twilight years, and his current tour is a mammoth farewell hike that he’s already 17 months into.
Aureoled beneath deathly white lights, Wilson himself cuts an almost spectral figure onstage: a softer jaw and greyer thatch than the tanned boy-next-door of the public consciousness, but still recognisably the same. At 75 he is shaky vocally, often slurring or garbling his parts, but he is carried by the wonderfully precise harmonies of his band. He remains a relatively remote presence, engaging in brief and clearly scripted audience banter and leaving the rest to his musicians, but there is a pervasive sense that the crowd is there to exalt him regardless.
Indeed, there is a sharp delineation in perceptions of the Beach Boys between the casual fans, who adhere to the general perception of the band as a kitschy, surfy novelty, and the more hardcore cadre to whom Wilson is a quasi-mythical misunderstood, tormented genius. This crowd fall firmly into the latter camp, papering over the cracks in Wilson’s voice with warm enthusiasm: as the show opens with the irresistible bounce of “California Girls” there is a rapturous wave of cheering that almost drowns Wilson out, ironically.
From there the show is harnessed by Wilson’s superlative band, who thunder through the classics with precision and brio. Al Jardine’s son Matt does much of the vocal heavy lifting—through some bizarre irony, Brian Wilson’s 2017 band contains more Beach Boys than the Mike Love-fronted band that tours under the Beach Boys name—and the complex harmonies are note-perfect. They will be needed as the band crest into Pet Sounds, ending up playing it in its entirety. The greatest compliment the musicians could be paid that they sound virtually identical to the album, with the deep cuts sparkling beautifully (“That’s Not Me” and “I Know There’s an Answer” are particular highlights). From there’s it’s a home run through an effervescent string of hits, including a robust “Good Vibrations”. However, perhaps the most revealing moment occurs after the concert ends. Within literally 2 minutes of the final notes of a tender “Love and Mercy”, security shunt open a backstage gate and a four-by-four carrying Wilson streaks away into the night. As ever, the flesh-and-blood Brian Wilson is subsumed by his legend. CO
Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gikGLzkKElw