Riding high off the riveting biopic “Love & Mercy” and the acclaim of last year’s studio album “No Pier Pressure,” Brian Wilson could’ve easily taken a breather. Nonetheless, The Beach Boys’ primary songwriter is back on the road yet again, this time celebrating the 50th anniversary of the band’s gorgeously experimental masterpiece “Pet Sounds” in its entirety with original group member Al Jardine, a little help from ‘70s add on (and future Rolling Stones sideman) Blondie Chaplin, plus nine other exceptional players.
Unlike so many albums of the ‘60s that focused on merely singles, “Pet Sounds” was one of the first to require the context of a complete listen, and while some tracks have resonated with the general public more than others, those who have the project memorized can vouch for its front to back majesty.
These days, Wilson is 74-years-old and he remains excruciatingly shy as a showman, while his voice isn’t quite what it used to be, though Jardine and company knew exactly where to fill in the blanks across a two act evening that logged three dozen tunes at the always immaculate Chicago Theatre. And when the genius behind them all did sing or speak, it was a quirky balance between awkward and endearing, though for a guy who’s battled back from a string of self-destructive behaviors, mental illness, a controversial doctor, strained family scenarios and bitter band disputes, just the fact that he’s still standing is a miracle.
Previous issues notwithstanding, Wilson had no trouble cracking a smile to the sun-stacked opening of “California Girls,” “Dance, Dance, Dance,” and “I Get Around,” all knockout examples of the cerebral songwriter’s ability to craft a series of accessible ditties. Though several others would pop up throughout the first half (including Al’s son Matt nailing the beautiful “Don’t Worry Baby”), the set list emphasized several deeper tracks and psychedelic expansions, most notably, a few from 1973’s “Holland” (accompanied by Chaplin’s guitar grandstanding).
Prior to “Pet Sounds” being played in its entirety, Wilson also surprised Chicago with a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” dedicated to actor extraordinaire John Cusack (“Love & Mercy,” “High Fidelity,” “Say Anything”), who was seated just a few rows from the front. Though the celeb quickly darted backstage during the intermission, he along with the packed theatre rushed right back to their seats as the main attraction returned and warmed up with a few lines from “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
From there, the 50th anniversary segment began with the jubilant “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” one of the four enormous smashes that also included the lushly layered harmonies of “Sloop John B,” the sublime “God Only Knows” and the beautiful closer “Caroline, No.” In between, Wilson also recalled the rarely performed likes of “That’s Not Me” and “Here Today,” while keeping everyone on their toes with the eclectic instrumentals “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” and the title track.
Unlike so many albums of the ‘60s that focused on merely singles, “Pet Sounds” was one of the first to require the context of a complete listen, and while some tracks have resonated with the general public more than others, those who have the project memorized can vouch for its front to back majesty. That continued to be the case on Saturday, as evidenced by the vast ages of those clearly enthralled with the collection, which still sounds straight out of a dream five decades later.
Though Wilson inexplicably rushed off stage about a minute before the band had actually completed the finale, he, the others (and even Cusack on background vocals) were red hot once they remerged with “Good Vibrations,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Fun, Fun Fun,” all strung together without a break and overflowing with sheer summertime ecstasy. Yet the most moving moment of them all came after brushing away the virtual sand for the understated, piano-based ballad “Love & Mercy,” which was bathed in a sea of glorious harmonies.
Wilson handled the lead, and though tentative in the delivery, his sincerity in conveying the chilling lyrics of contemplation and redemption surely sent chills throughout the room. Even he was beaming with all the other players by the final bow, while the audience heaped appreciation for easily the most outstanding musical body of work in American history made by a man whose personal resilience is just as remarkable.
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