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Brian Wilson's fragile genius shines through 'Pet Sounds' at Orpheum

Brian Wilson performing "Pet Sounds" last month in Virginia

Brian Wilson performing "Pet Sounds" last month in Virginia Roanoke Times via AP

There is a sort of permanent waggishness about Brian Wilson. Beneath the disorders, chemical abuse, mania, sonic genius, and the all-consuming catatonic despair that underpins his entire body of work, sits a man who exudes an almost childlike wonder onstage.

Wilson, 74, was accompanied by his outstanding 11-piece band Sunday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. He was as young and old as he's ever sounded as he commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Beach Boys' landmark album Pet Sounds, supposedly for the final time. 

“We have to flip the record over,” Beach Boys co-founder Al Jardine quipped before the group launched into a rather stilted cover of “God Only Knows.” It was a nostalgic joke for a nostalgic night, even though Jardine clearly didn’t get the memo about this decade’s vinyl resurgence.

Wilson, on the other hand, sat listlessly at his piano for much of the night, reading lyrics from a clear teleprompter with a look of vague bemusement. His voice seemed to drown under the swells of orchestral pop, and other times it simply sounded tuneless.

But when it was good, it was great.

Flanked by cohorts like Jardine and guitarist/ex-Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin, Wilson cut through a slew of tour mainstays in the 16-song first act like “I Get Around,” and a monumental rendition of “Sail Away,” which featured some incendiary guitar work from Chaplin. From the saccharine hum of “Don’t Worry Baby” to the reliably upbeat “Surfer Girl,” the band performed with much focus and aplomb.

Before intermission, Wilson cavalierly exited the stage midway through “Sail On, Sailor.” But he didn’t look like a world-class showman yearning for respite. Rather, he seemed like an aloof man who had mistakenly wandered on and off stage in a dizzying haze. It was a brief glimpse into how decades of battling mental illness and substances can manifest in a seventy-something music genius.

Unsurprisingly, Wilson handled lead vocals for the majority of the Pet Sounds portion, with mixed results. On the hushed “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” he excelled, whereas during “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” he fell flat. Wilson’s languid energy sometimes stifled the momentum, but Pet Sounds' imprint on the American psyche is too profound to be totally compromised by an aging voice --- a stellar rhythm section comes in handy, too.

There is an existential and psychological dread permeating Pet Sounds that remains universal. For all of its sunny production and extravagant symphonics, it is an earth-shatteringly sad album and its themes of loneliness and fading youth resonate with generation after generation. Wilson is like the original emo kid.

Instead of couching his misery in petulant nihilism, though, he is a obsessive formalist who assembles gorgeous arrangements that are as delicate as his own state of mind. The songs are a contentious marriage of the sunny sonics and bleak lyricism and they have aged beautifully into the new millennium.

Of course, Wilson has seen better days. But touring at the age of 74 and recreating your seminal work night after night for gleeful fans that transcend generation and culture isn’t so bad either. 1966 was a long time ago and Wilson is no longer looking for a place to fit in -- he’s just looking for a place. He's found it on stage. 

Critic’s bias: Like any sane person on earth, I have an unabashed allegiance to Pet Sounds and it would’ve taken some serious high drama disaster to ruin my experience.

The crowd: Mostly baby boomers accompanied by their millennial children. A few hipster types. Some potential Trump supporters.

Random notebook dump: Brian Wilson is way better at being old than Bob Dylan.  

Setlist:

(ACT 1) California Girls / Dance, Dance, Dance / I Get Around, Shut Down / Little Deuce Coup / You're So Good To Me / In My Room / Surfer Girl / Don't Worry Baby / Salt Lake City / Wake the World / Add Some Music To Your Day, California Saga: California / Sail Away / Wild Honey / Sail On / Sailor

(ACT 2 -- Pet Sounds): Wouldn't It Be Nice? / You Still Believe In Me? / That's Not Me, Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) / I'm Waiting For The Day / Let's Go Away For a While / Sloop John B / God Only Know / I Know There's An Answer / Here Today / I Just Wasn't Made For These Times / Pet Sounds / Caroline No

(ACT 3): Good Vibrations / Help Me, Rhonda / Barbara Ann / Surfin' USA / Fun, Fun, Fun / Love and Mercy