Brian Wilson Plays the Hits at Mountain Winery

Brian Wilson
Rodriguez
June 18, 2015
Mountain Winery, Saratoga


Better Than:
watching the Beach Boys make their 34th guest appearance on Full House.

“This is a really good song I wrote 50 years ago.”

These are the words Brian Wilson — Beach Boy, troubled soul, pop music genius — uses to introduce “God Only Knows.” It is a really good song, one of the better ones ever recorded by many estimations. The night has finally set in fully, the sun giving way to reveal a sky smeared with stars as Wilson and his band, which includes former Beach Boys Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, dig into a track proclaimed by Paul McCartney to be “the greatest song ever written.” This is how the evening has gone: a laid back crowd of all ages taking in some of the finest pop tunes ever written.

[jump] Before Wilson takes the stage, the show starts with opener Rodriguez, the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary Searching for Sugarman. He appears a bit frail, being lead in by an assistant to take his solitary place on the stage with nothing but an acoustic guitar and a top hat of which Slash would surely approve. He winds his way through standards and singles, a short set given far less fanfare then it deserves as late-arriving guests find their seats and stock up on Pinot Grigio.

“In a few minutes, you’re going to be hearing from an icon,” Rodriguez tells the crowd ahead of his last number. Several people shout that there are actually two icons performing tonight. “No, no, no” he chides the audience, a smile on his face. “I want you to treat me as an ordinary legend.” When the legend gives way to the icon, it’s like finding a jukebox with a broken quarter slot. Hit after hit after hit make up what will ultimately be a thirty-two song set, drawing extensively from Wilson’s career as a Beach Boy and his solo work (how much the former is really an extension of the latter is a debate for another time).

If one’s goal for the evening is to search out the imperfections, they’re not difficult to spot. Wilson’s voice is fairly shot, and the center-stage keyboard he sits behind for the duration of the show seems most ornamental. The show isn’t sold-out, which is a tragedy, and as the first night of a summer-long tour promoting Wilson’s newest album, Pier Pressure, there are a few off-notes and missed signals among the band. But to let any of these things stand between your ears and the sounds of “Help Me Rhonda” or “In My Room” is to waste a terribly rare and fortunate opportunity to see a true musical genius sing his own words on stage.

On the issue of the Beach Boy’s many falsetto lines and Wilson’s inability to hit them as a man of 72, a great compromise is found in Matt Jardine, son of Al Jardine, and owner of a gorgeous voice. For songs like “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Barbara Ann,” having the younger Jardine carry the lead vocals allows the songs to retain their ethereal sound. In each case where Jardine takes the mantle as lead vocalist, there is always one moment where he cedes the lines to Wilson, a simple yet touching flourish. Al Jardine is on stage too, splitting his time between rhythm guitar, watching his son with a father’s pride, and keeping an eye on Wilson when he seems to be momentarily lost or stuck. Rounding out a supersized band that includes brass, two drummers, and more is Blondie Chaplin, one-time Beach Boy and all-time far out dude.

For the man of the hour, he is charming, slightly disheveled, and a delight to watch. During the instrumental switches during pop opuses like “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains,” Wilson conducts the band with energetic hand motions. Conversely, he also appears to frequently check his watch throughout the evening, perhaps most memorably during “Love and Mercy,” a solo ballad and the final encore of the night. This is who Wilson is: somewhat shaky and sometimes confusing. As each song progresses, there is a slight fear looming that he might forget the next verse, although the words always seem to find him just in time. Who he is as a live musician in 2015 is impossible to separate from who he will always be as a composer, singer, innovator, and yes, icon.

Does this mean Brian Wilson is being let off the hook?

Yes, damn right it does. If you write “God Only Knows,” you’ll be let off the hook too. After all, it is a really good song.

Critic’s Notebook:

– If you haven’t seen Love and Mercy, the film about Brian Wilson starring Paul Dano and John Cusack, forgo a brunch and see it this weekend. You may not see a better movie this year.

– While waiting to buy a beer, I saw the woman in front of me pressure the bartender to pour her wine higher, continuing to berate him even after he explained that he could be fired for doing so. The worst.

– Yes the Mountain Winery is a decent drive for San Franciscans, but the pleasure of watching an outdoor show at night in short sleeves with a clear sky above you is worth every second.

– Blondie Chaplin tried to bond with the crowd, asking “How about those Golden Gate Warriors?” I think he may be on to something.

Setlist:

1. Our Prayer
2. Heroes and Villains
3. California Girls
4. I Get Around
5. This Whole World
6. Dance, Dance, Dance
7. The Little Girl I Once Knew
8. Shut Down
9. Little Deuce Coup
10. Don’t Worry Baby
11. Cotton Fields
12. In My Room
13. Surfer Girl
14. She Knows Me Too Well
15. Wake the World
16. Busy Doin’ Nothin’
17. The Right Time
18. Runaway Dancer
19. Sail Away
20. One Kind of Love
21. Wild Honey
22. Sail On, Sailor
23. Wouldn’t It Be Nice
24. Sloop John B
25. God Only Knows
26. Good Vibrations

Encore:

27. All Summer Long
28. Help Me, Rhonda
29. Barbara Ann
30. Surfin’ USA
31. Fun, Fun, Fun
32. Love and Mercy

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