Aspen Times Weekly: A Midsummer Night’s Brian Wilson Concert
Brian Wilson has said that after a tour next year celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” he’ll retire for good. He canceled a fall run through Europe this year, presumably to help with an Oscar campaign for “Love & Mercy,” the acclaimed new biopic about his groundbreaking early career with the Beach Boys and later years of abuse under the thumb of an exploitative therapist.
Opportunities to see a performance by “the Mozart of rock ’n’ roll,” now 73, are dwindling. Chances are that his Aug. 6 show at Belly Up, headlining the annual Aspen fundraiser for Denver-based National Jewish Health, was his last in these parts. The show was far from perfect, but nonetheless provided a perfect opportunity to celebrate the indelible mark he left on pop music.
Behind him, Wilson had a stellar seven-man band that did most of the heavy lifting during the nearly 30-song set. The band gorgeously recreated the elaborate sounds that Wilson imagined and arranged in the studio decades ago. Wilson leaned heavily on singer-guitarist (and Beach Boys founding member) Al Jardine, who sang most of the vocals, with his son Matt Jardine providing falsettos Wilson can no longer hit, and music director Darian Sahanaja leading most of the time on keys.
The show kicked off with “California Girls” and included all the hits, running through a suite of car songs that ended with “Little Deuce Coupe,” and faithful renditions of “Surfer Girl,” “Sloop John B,” “God Only Knows,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Good Vibrations,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.” — no iconic Beach Boys song went unturned and no casual fan went away disappointed. They performed one song – “Whatever Happened,” with Jardine on vocals — from Wilson’s new solo album, “No Pier Pressure,” and one from “Smile” along with a few deeper cuts like “In My Room.”
Al Jardine, a spry 72, is an effective singer, his son is a great Brian Wilson mimic, and Sahanaja is a fantastic keyboardist — these guys provided some high points. But much of the time it felt like watching a Beach Boys cover band, with Wilson more an uncomfortable bit of stage decoration than a full-fledged bandmember. The enthusiastic crowd – made up of National Jewish’s generous, high-spirited donors – didn’t seem to mind and kept the mood festive. After staying seated through the first five songs, they filled the dance floor on a cover of “Do You Wanna Dance” and stayed there through the rollicking set.
There were a handful of sublime moments. Wilson played a stark “God Only Knows” mostly on his own, after introducing it as “a beautiful effeminate ballad,” and the band ended the night with a six-song encore, concluding with “Love and Mercy,” for which Wilson saved up some juice, delivering a sweet and heartrending take on the song that’s getting a major reconsideration as a Wilson anthem by way of the new film of the same name.
I’d seen Wilson 10 years ago at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, when he was on tour for “Smile,” his triumphant four-decades-in-the-making solo album. The set list that day was a similarly crowd-pleasing Beach Boys hit parade, but Wilson did all the singing and, as I remember, sounded pretty good. This lesser performance in Aspen may be an outlier – altitude has undone much younger men on Aspen stages. Or it may signal that Wilson is entering into late Bob Dylan terrain, where the studio albums are excellent (“No Pier Pressure,” released in April, is worth a listen) but the live show is more of a chance for fans to genuflect before the genius, not necessarily to see him perform a great concert. That said, I was happy to bow down to Brian Wilson.
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April has been decreed, for the first time, as “Sonoma County Wine Month” by the vintners and it is a righteous idea, one that should have legs long into the future.