Live Music: Brian Wilson, Wellmont Theatre, Montclair, NJ, 11/23/08

Written by Concert Reviews, Music

He’s 67 years old now. The still-full head of hair is graying. There are a few extra pounds around the midsection of the once lanky frame. His eyes reflect a sadness that most of us will never understand. Remarkably, especially given his tragic history, Brian Wilson is writing and producing some of the most vital music of his career these days. His most recent album, That Lucky Old Sun, is a nostalgic look back at the southern California of his childhood, a place defined by a mythos that no one was more responsible for creating than Wilson himself.

To call Brian Wilson a cult figure seems a little odd considering how many records he’s sold during his career, and yet to some extent, that’s what he is these days. Yes, there are Beach Boys fans, a surprising number of young people among them, who will come out to hear the hits, and Brian and his stellar band deliver those every night. These same people are likely to go to a show by the band, led by Mike Love and Bruce Johnston, that tours as the Beach Boys these days. But there are hardcore Brian Wilson fans who want nothing to do with Mike Love. They are there to hear Brian’s newest music, and not just one song, but the entire album, start to finish. Over the last few years, Brian has rewarded those fans with full takes on his masterpieces, Pet Sounds and SMiLE, and now, a performance of his latest opus, That Lucky Old Sun.

Until recently, the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, NJ, was a down-at-the-heels old movie theater surrounded by a community that was rapidly gentrifying. New ownership entered the picture, and they have done a miraculous job of restoring the old place, which re-opened in October. Not only is the theater looking and sounding great, but get this, the staff is actually polite and seems grateful for your business. Imagine that if you can. The Wellmont is a perfect example of the fact that we don’t need to cover every inch of ground space with new buildings when wonderful older buildings are awaiting restoration.

No discussion of Brian Wilson in concert can proceed without talking about his band. To my mind, this is the finest touring band in the world today. There are ten members in all (augmented on this night by a string section), not including Brian. Eight of them sing, and a number of them play several instruments. It may be heresy, but having seen this band a number of times, and the Beach Boys in their heyday, I’m afraid that the original can’t compare musically, or even vocally to the thrilling sound of the Brian Wilson Band. You never get the feeling that these are hired hands. Their love for Brian and his music is obvious from beginning to end. They are led by guitarist/vocalist Jeffrey Foskett, who reproduces the vocal sound of Carl Wilson so faithfully that it will bring tears to your eyes. Darian Sahanaja, who is thought of as the musical librarian of the band, is the musician responsible for helping Brian to reconstruct SMiLE. Scott Bennett, who plays keyboards and guitar, co-wrote That Lucky Old Sun with Brian. It’s worth noting that Brian’s badly damaged voice, so often a topic of discussion in recent years, is now back nearly at full strength.

The show is divided into two sets, plus the encores. The first set found Brian performing a combination of Beach Boys hits, as well as some non-hits that are fan favorites. So along with staples like the opening “California Girls,” and the set-closing “Good Vibrations,” we also got a few of my personal classics including “Please Let Me Wonder,” and “Sail On Sailor.”

After a twenty minute intermission, the band took the stage again for a complete performance of That Lucky Old Sun. I loved that the audience was so attentive for the new music. After all, there are no hits here, at least not yet, but there are many songs that will be classics someday. The appreciation was palpable, the applause was in all the right places, and no one felt the need to make a spectacle of themselves by shouting at quiet moments. There was the woman behind me who insisted on singing along, much too loudly, at some quiet moments, but I guess she had to prove that she knew the new stuff. Highlights included “Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl,” and the incredibly emotional depiction of Brian’s return from the depths of despair, “Midnight’s Another Day.” When the video screens showed photos of his late brothers, Dennis and Carl, during “Goin’ Home,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The first encore was the usual group of up tempo songs designed to get the audience on their feet, and that they did. Finally, Brian sent the audience home warm and happy on the chilly November night with “Love and Mercy.”

If I had the opportunity to give it all up and go on the road with a band, this is the band I’d go with. This is music that I could experience night after night and its power would never diminish for me. Obviously the band feels the same way. Back in the ’70s, Capitol Records mounted an advertising campaign with the tagline “Brian Is Back.” He wasn’t then, but he is now.

The Setlist:

    First Set

California Girls
Girl Don’t Tell Me
Dance, Dance, Dance
Then I Kissed Her
Surfer Girl
In My Room
Salt Lake City
All Summer Long
Please Let Me Wonder
Add Some Music
She’s Not the Little Girl I Once Knew
Do You Wanna Dance?
Do It Again
Sail On Sailor
Marcella
I Get Around
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
God Only Knows
Good Vibrations

Intermission

    That Lucky Old Sun

That Lucky Old Sun
Morning Beat
Narrative: Room With A View
Good Kind of Love
Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl
Narrative: Venice Beach
Live Let Live
Mexican Girl
Narrative: Cinco De Mayo
California Role
Narrative: Between Pictures
Oxygen To The Brain
Been Too Long
Midnight’s Another Day
Lucky Old Sun Reprise
Goin’ Home
Southern California
Roll Around Heaven Reprise

    First Encore

Johnny B. Goode
Help Me Rhonda
Barbara Ann
Surfin’ USA
Fun, Fun, Fun

    Second Encore

Love and Mercy

By the way, I’m finally figuring out how to use my new camera. If you would like to see more of my photos from the show, please go to Brian Wilson at the Wellmont.