Brian Wilson @ Theatre St-Denis – 22nd November 2018

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brian wilson montreal

“Legend” is a tag that gets passed around pretty easily, but few deserve it more than 76-year-old Brian Wilson. Founder of the legendary group The Beach Boys, he’s responsible for some of the most important compositions in musical history; show me someone who doesn’t think “God Only Knows” is one of the greatest songs of all time, and I will show you a fool! Despite losing a huge chunk of his life to struggles with mental illness and substance abuse, he’s enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance in the last 15 years or so, touring frequently across the world, as if to make up for lost time. Things have been rocky between Brian and fellow founder Mike Love in recent years; the latter owns the license to The Beach Boys name, and tours under that name with almost-original member Bruce Johnstone to this day. Brian, meanwhile, teamed up with fellow founder Al Jardine, and tours under his own name; we can only assume Al is OK with that. Differences were set aside for a 50th-anniversary tour in 2012, culminating in a spectacular show at the Bell Centre, but the differences remain, and the two touring entities soon separated once again.

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Well, that’s a short summary of the soap opera that is The Beach Boys. Back to the subject at the hand: tonight’s show. Brian has been touring with Beat Root Revival for a number of months now, and they have become quite adept at opening for him. The duo consists of British guitarist Ben Jones and Irish bodhrán-player Andrea Magee; FYI, the bodhrán is a kind of hand-held vertical drum that, when played, looks like a paint palette being struck by a paintbrush being shaken dry, if that description helps at all (probably not – maybe just Google it). Anyway, they know that there is no way in a million years they will ever upstage tonight’s headliner, so they don’t even try. Instead, entertaining the audience is the name of the game, as their 30-minute set features 2 cover versions, despite them having 3 albums of their own material in their repertoire. Dreams by Fleetwood Mac is given a Gaelic makeover, much like the cover by The Corrs in the 90s, but concludes in a huge tin whistle outro (nothing like The Corrs). Come Together by The Beatles is given a similar overhaul, but ends with both guitar and bodhrán being thrashed to within an inch of their lives. Their own material is good too, particularly Sit Me Down Warm Blues (in which Andrea shreds her bodhrán once more), and the cheers from the packed theatre at the end of the set suggests their interest has been piqued. The massive crowd that goes to visit their merch stand right afterwards to meet the band proves it.

brian wilson montreal st-denis

And so to the main event. Time has not been kind to Brian Wilson, and he is a very frail figure these days, unable to even walk to his piano without being led there by his assistant. Still, after sitting down, he puts on his performing cap and proclaims “thanks for coming out, here’s California Girls for ya!!!” which such volume and confidence you would never suspect anything is wrong. Dance, Dance, Dance and I Get Around are delivered with similar gusto. Of course, Brian is far from alone on the stage, backed as he is by a whopping 10-piece backing band, who are well drilled in the art of Beach Boy harmonies. Brian has fellow original Beach Boy Al Jardine on his left flank all night, and he sings as much as Brian himself. Al soon assumes full vocal lead on Shut Down and Little Deuce Coupe, ably assisted by the younger voices harmonizing around the stage. And it sounds wonderful. Other, younger members of the backing band take the lead on songs later in the set, such as Don’t Worry Baby and Darlin,’ spreading out the workload further.

The addition of Blondie Chaplin to the touring line-up is a smart move too. It’s a stretch t’70sll him a Beach Boy, being with the band for just a year or so in the ’70s, before going off to tour with The Rolling Stones for the majority of his touring career. And you can tell too. He has the swagger of Mick Jagger and the look of Keith Richards as he takes the lead on Feel Flows, Wild Honey, and Sail On, Sailor, roaming around the front of the stage for each song, busting out riffs as he goes. He has a truly incredible amount of energy for a 67-year-old and contrasts greatly with Brian who barely moves throughout the show, and indeed, has a tendency to apparently zone out a little during the songs on which he doesn’t have a part. Still, as mentioned, when it’s his turn to sing, he mentally flicks a switch and is back on the ball as if nothing happened, as he follows Blondie’s cameo with a stomping Do It Again.

brian wilson theatre st-denis

As part of this tour, the band has rotated the setlist between a Greatest Hits set and a Hits set including a full run-through of the seminal Pet Sounds record from 1966. Brian appears to have confused which set is up tonight, as he boldly next announces “we’re gonna do Pet Sounds now!” Al awkwardly corrects this: “well, an abbreviated version, like, 3 songs!” It’s a shame to not get the full Pet Sounds experience tonight, but given that the album recreation was part of Jazz Festival set they did in 2016, it’s understandable. Vocal duties are shared out again; one of the younger band members tackles the falsetto-laden vocals of Wouldn’t It Be Nice (though its Brian himself who sings the “we could get married” bridge, much to the delight of the crowd), Al takes on the timeless Sloop John B, and then, of course, its Brian who sings the perfect God Only Knows. Its goosebump-inducing, and greeted by a standing ovation from the crowd at its conclusion. Brian notices right away: “thank you, ladies and gentleman, thank you! Please be seated, thank you!” A glorious Good Vibrations closes out the main set in a glorious manner.

After the touring saxophone player introduces the band one-by-one to initiate the encore (including jokingly introducing Blondie Chaplin as “the shy one”), he urges the crowd to stay standing and dance for the rest of the night. The crowd is happy to oblige. Al leads on Help Me, Rhonda and Barbara Ann, with everybody but Brian providing more trademark glorious harmonies, before Brian returns for the classic Surfin’ U.S.A. After Al takes vocal duties one last time on Fun, Fun, Fun, a spotlight falls appropriately on Brian for the last song, the rousing piano ballad Love and Mercy. With a bow and a simple “ladies and gentleman, thanks for coming!”, Brian leaves the stage with the band after 90 wonderful minutes. Given his relentless touring schedule, he may be back here soon. Given his visible frailty and advancing age, he may not. Whatever the case may be, everybody inside Theatre St-Denis tonight was grateful to have spent such a magical evening with the legend that is Brian Wilson.

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Setlist

California Girls
Dance, Dance, Dance
I Get Around
Shut Down
Little Deuce Coupe
Little Honda
In My Room
Salt Lake City
Don’t Worry Baby
Wake the World
Add Some Music to Your Day
California Saga: California
Darlin’
Feel Flows
Wild Honey
Sail On, Sailor
Do It Again
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Sloop John B
God Only Knows
Good Vibrations

Encore

Help Me, Rhonda
Barbara Ann
Surfin’ U.S.A.
Fun, Fun, Fun
Love and Mercy

Review – Simon Williams
Photos – Steve Gerrard

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