Brian Wilson at Sydney Opera House

It’s been 50 years since the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds, and in celebration, Brian Wilson has brought his band to Australia for a complete rendition of the album, plus some greatest hits. Harmony-drenched opener “Our Prayer” is a suitable match for Sydney Opera House’s almost celestial Opera Hall, which tonight is heavily populated by both beardy musos and oldies in Hawaiian shirts and baseball caps.

From there Wilson and his 11-piece band stream through a stream of hits that sound as good as the records, “I Get Around” and “California Girls” in particular inspiring some ’60s-style groovy (and not so groovy) dancing. Wilson sits centre stage behind his huge grand piano; to his left stands original Beach Boy Al Jardine on guitar, still in great shape and able to sing the old greats like “Shut Down” and “Little Deuce Coupe” with gusto.

His son Matt Jardine is also on hand to reach the higher octaves that Wilson can no longer hit. He provides lead for “Don’t Worry Baby”, an impeccable recreation of the original and easily the highlight of the night. Each of the song’s three choruses literally put shivers down my spine and hit me with a wall of emotion as pure as water. In over 10 years of going to concerts I’ve never teared up, until now.

Also in the line-up is guitarist Blondie Chaplin, ex-Beach Boy from the 1970s, who drifts on and off stage throughout the evening. Singing lead on Holland-era tracks such as “Sail On, Sailor” and the suitably-named “Funky Pretty”, Chaplin struts around like Nigel Tufnel and also adds some slightly ill-judged guitar shreds to the once-soulful “Wild Honey”. All the while, Brian Wilson sits behind his piano looking a tad out of place, like a priest at a skate park.

After an interval Wilson and his band do a spectacular job of replicating just about every instrument on the intricate, multi-layered Pet Sounds. “God Only Knows” is like heaven, and receives a standing ovation that Wilson cuts short: “Alright, that’s enough”. Overall, the 13-song Pet Sounds set is delicate and sensitive, sandwiched nicely by the hits.

It’s when they rattle off some of these older classics that quite so many band members seem superfluous – I know the tambourine isn’t going to play itself, but I counted five guitars being played (five!) for “Barbara Ann”.

But on several occasions I strained my ears to pick out Brian’s singing voice amongst the multiple-part harmonies and realised his contributions were probably minimal. It reminded of the old stone soup fable – the hungry travellers who set up camp next to some wary local villagers, and add a stone to a pot of boiling water, telling the villagers they’re “making a delicious stone soup”. The villagers each contribute ingredients to improve the soup’s flavour, yet it’s the stone they give credit for its magical soup-making properties.

Likewise, tonight’s 36-song set at the Opera House was mouth-wateringly good. But like the stone in the soup, too often tonight it seemed of little consequence whether Wilson was there or not. Although he can still reach most of the low notes, he can’t hold them for too long before spluttering or running out of breath. Now 73 years old, his band carry him – but it’s totally understandable.

One exception is the final song, the piano ballad “Love and Mercy” from Wilson’s first solo album, with the cracks in his voice only adding to the tenderness. He hobbles off stage and I feel a pang of sorrow that I probably won’t see him again.

For so many fans these songs were a soundtrack to what must’ve seemed like an eternal youth; now lyrics like “God only knows what I’d be without you” and “I feel so broke up, I wanna go home” add that extra poignancy coming from a man whose best days are behind him. That in itself lends these concerts added beauty that make them worthwhile. I just hope Brian Wilson is happy to still be doing them.

 

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