Concert Review: Brian Wilson at Highline Ballroom
Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin & Beach Boys Hits
Highline Ballroom, New York, NY
June 13, 2011
While the first annual Blue Note Jazz Fest is a month long celebration of sultry sounds with dozens of artists participating in countless performances around the city, the highlight was clearly the iconic Brian Wilson’s three night stand at the Highline Ballroom, which wrapped on Monday night. Dubbed “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin & Beach Boys Hits,” the two hour performance would feature a full, hour long set of Beach Boys music, followed by Wilson’s performance of his 2010 “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin” album in its entirety, broken up with an intermittent break. Although he’s 68 years old, Wilson and his talented band of musicians brought the house down, in what could be one of his final area performances.
With long gray hair and his familiar, but now sunken face, Wilson took the stage dressed in a red button down shirt, sitting comfortably atop a stool, his white sneakers resting on the rungs below. Backed by a group of musicians that can only be described as spectacular, Wilson often performed as a conductor rather than a frontman- as if he and his bandmates were in a private rehearsal, rather than in front of a sold out New York City crowd for a third straight evening. His band of eight backup musicians however clearly reveled in the moment. Heavily influenced by the legendary songwriter, they filled in wherever Wilson was unable- his trademark falsetto, playing countless percussion instruments, bringing the crowd to their feet. The songs are timeless, but Wilson’s band truly brought them to life.
Beneath the nine piece band and beneath the melodies and the harmonies, the familiar voice is still there. The set felt like a literal greatest hits as Wilson and company tore through The Beach Boys’ singles seamlessly. The opener “Do It, Again” was a nod to the band’s upcoming 50th anniversary, and one where for the first time in years, the four remaining bandmates are rumored to re-record the song in a tribute to their history. The familiarity of “Don’t Worry Baby” brought the mostly older audience to their feet, as Wilson, his voice older and deeper, was relegated to Mike Love’s portion of the vocals rather than his own, as he was for most of the show. But allowing the irreplaceable Jeff Foskett to handle the high notes allowed the band to authentically recreate the signature nostalgia that only a Beach Boys’ harmony can derive. Similarly, the immensely talented Darian Sahanaja more than capably did the ‘60′s version of the band proud, expertly taking lead vocals on “Darlin’,” from 1967’s “Wild Honey” album.
And through it all, there was Brian Wilson, seemingly stoic and unfazed, dare I say, emotionless at times. But the tables of concertgoers filling the Ballroom could not have cared less as the sounds of the evening transported them back to a time when going steady was “neat” and the only things in life that seemingly mattered were girls, cars, and surfing. Deeper cuts like 1965’s “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” 1970’s “Add Some Music to Your Day,” and 1973’s “Sail On, Sailor” were meticulously placed in the set to pacify the most strident Beach Boys fan. Familiar tunes like “Surfer Girl,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B,” God Only Knows,” and “Good Vibrations,” brought the mostly seated crowd back to their feet again, as husbands and wives danced and clapped feverishly, recreating scenes from their youth.
Aside from Wilson’s humorous “here’s the part of the show where we do car songs” line before launching into long time favorites “Shut Down,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” and the catchy “I Get Around,” the highlight of the evening had to be the encore. After the performance of the jazz infused Gershwin album in the second set, which was both masterful and surprisingly lively, Wilson returned to his staples with a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and rousing versions of The Beach Boys’ classics “Help Me Rhonda,” “Barbara Ann,” where Wilson himself donned a bass guitar, “Surfin USA,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” by which point the entire crowd in attendance was on their feet and rocking as Brian Wilson delivered his own personal throwback to old fashioned rock and roll music to end the show.
The problem is, we don’t realize how fortunate we are to still have a Brian Wilson. Notorious tales of his rampant drug use, bouts with mental illness, and his life as a relative recluse are no secret. Few songwriters were more brilliant and few performers can still deliver such an outstanding live experience, all by a man who by all accounts at one point, would never create or perform live music again. Yet few songwriting icons are more underrated and perhaps more easily forgotten. Although his contributions to the annals of rock music and his influence upon subsequent artists is unquestionable, Wilson is seldom mentioned in the same breath as those placed in the pantheon of music royalty. And judging by his performance at the Highline last night, and the innumerable hits that Brian Wilson has created, it’s a gross miscalculation on our part. It’s where his name belongs.
-Jane Van Arsdale