Anyone even partially familiar with Brian Wilson’s current mental state would have been mad to expect better from Saturday’s show at the State Theater. It’s barbed praise, but praise nonetheless, for the 67-going-on-167 year old Wilson who plodded with remarkable precision through a two-hour long set that included That Lucky Old Sun in its entirety, book-ended by an opening hour and an encore that gleamed with Beach Boys hits.
Wilson doddered to the electric piano set up at center stage moments after the house lights dimmed. He was facially gaunt, bodily distended, dressed in a blue-striped shirt and track pants. It was as unceremonious an entrance as can be conceived. After declaring that the evening would not be a rock concert, but rather a pop concert, he and his backing band, which includes a murderer’s row of crack musicians that have been with him since he toured SMiLE in 2004, executed the first half of the set with unerring precision. Beginning with “California Girls” and moving immediately to 1965’s “Dance, Dance, Dance,” it became clear that the backing band would be doing much of the heavy lifting. Wilson’s arms hung helplessly at his sides, rarely touching the piano that sat before him for show, his face showed child-like bewilderment, and almost all of his most recognizable vocal turns from Pet Sounds and beyond were delegated to his lead guitarist who, to his credit, was a sonic doppelganger of a young Brian Wilson.
Whatever small part Wilson himself had in it, the night’s music was gloriously exact, and it was the impeccability of his compositions that were the real guests of honor. Behind him, Wilson’s band executed his impossibly elaborate harmonies and arrangements without missing a note. From early hits like “Surfer Girl” through “Wouldn‘t It Be Nice” (in which Wilson, in his most graceful turn, sang nary a note), the music and vocal performances were, in the most literal sense, beyond belief.
It was the second half of the set that proved most taxing for the audience and Wilson himself. Closing the first half of the set with “Good Vibrations” (which Wilson introduced as “the greatest pop song ever written”), the band announced that they would be playing Wilson’s new solo album That Lucky Old Sun after a 20-minute intermission. During the wait, the crowd thinned considerably, and the performance couldn’t keep the mind from wandering to the implied tragedies that oozed from every pristine note and every standing ovation. While Wilson and the band trudged through limp-sailed rockers, an animated narrative played on a screen behind the drum riser, a production of such disastrously poor execution and low production values that it cast a pall upon even the finer moments of the second set.
The crowd in attendance were good natured enough. Each song received at least partial standing ovations, and there were couples cluttering the aisles with clumsy dance steps during the more upbeat numbers. They were, by and large, belonging to the previous generation, who ostensibly remember a time when Wilson’ compositions were the score to their own youthful follies, in an Eden before Wilson‘s personal struggles put a dark twist on his sunniest works, and who seemed most interested in reliving the phantom good times they once had hearing “Surfin’ USA” on AM radio.
There was only one moment in the concert that addressed my own sort of relationship to Brian Wilson. It came during the second half of the set, during “Midnight’s Another Day,“ the stand-out song of That Lucky Old Sun and one of the most intensely personal songs Wilson has ever helped create. It’s a rare moment in which Wilson addresses his darkest parts, and the fleeting redemption music has afforded him. Behind him, on a small silk screen, images of a young Wilson, skinny and awkward and pale, faded in and out while, onstage, Wilson crooned quite adeptly “All these voices/ all these memories/ made me feel like stone/ all these people/ made me feel so alone.” For the song’s few minutes, a sense of terrifying honesty was palpable in the theater, a sense that was mountainously remote during his encore cover of “Johnny B. Goode.”
The audience sat agape. For my part, I spent the song breathlessly rooted to my seat. It was the only moment of the night that seemed to acknowledge the tragedy unfolding onstage, a tragedy that all the smiles of his backing musicians, and all the broad daylight of his Beach Boys hits, only made the more painfully silent. It was a moment that made the rest of the set seem an obligatory and often artificial recitation by comparison, and when Wilson, after his second encore which heard him perform the deep cut “Love And Mercy,” made a shallow bow and stumbled once more off stage, it was the only part of the evening that I could still feel in my gut.