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Brian Wilson
The Palais Theatre, St Kilda
Sunday April 3rd 2016

Review by Michael Witheford. Photos by Mary Boukouvalas –

Brian Wilson sits on a couch by himself for two to three hours prior to each concert. Before that he’s forced to face the ordeal of saying hi to thirty or forty people who have paid more than 200 dollars to sit in on the band’s sound-check, and get an autograph and photo with Brian.

Our reviewer Michael with Brian

In the photo we were lucky enough to have taken with the greatest songwriter of the 20th century, after all that, while Brian was on his couch, fifteen minutes before show time, the Beach Boy is smiling … smiling a bit too much. It’s a pained horizontal rictus that he has to yank into place over and over again, night after night, every time an over-excited punter hugs him and mugs for their partner, who fumbles around with their camera for too long before … FLASH… next. FLASH … next.

Who can blame Brian for sitting on the couch in reflection for HOURS after that? The crew and band roll to and fro and take no notice of him. He’s invisible, meditating – and what wouldn’t we give to know what he’s thinking about? Is he hearing new songs? Are there five part harmonies bothering him again? That head enclosing a massive musical tumour where we, the regular humans, the non-genius masses, have dull thudding mediocre brains.

The show began with the religiosity of ‘Our Prayer’, an acapella song which finally saw the light, in its proper place, when the Wilson band, in 2004, recorded the abandoned Smile album from 1967. Just ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’, but in a harmonic density that boggles the mind. And then, bang, ‘Heroes and Villains’. This was a song Wilson was genuinely fearful of listening to in the ‘70s and ‘80s because it was recorded as he suffered his first major psychotic breakdown, and anything from that time freaked the fuck out of him. Nowadays Brian sings the song comfortably, peacefully. And what a song. Wilson had reached the ripe old age of 24 when he lost his mind trying to finish Smile. He was never the same.

But that’s nothing. He was 19 when he wrote his first song ‘Surfer Girl’. And what a gem it remains. “I have watched you on the shore. Standing by the ocean’s roar. Do you love me? Do you Surfer Girl?” The song is in 6/8, or waltz time if you like. Unfashionable at the time. Uncommon. Unusual. Already Brian Wilson was revealing that he was somehow touched by something in the universe that the rest of us couldn’t access.

‘Dance Dance Dance’ is Wilson in prime pop mode, writing for the kids of 1964. And yet of the ten piece band, six are singing different harmonic parts on a rockin’ little tune that the words ‘deceptively complex’ barely cover.

Pic by Mary Boukouvalas
Al Jardine Pic by Mary Boukouvalas

Founding member of the Beach Boys, and the most important member of the band after Wilson, Al Jardine is resplendent in trademark white suit and white Fender Strat. Jardine has stuck by Wilson through every crisis of his life, while other members of the band and entourage and record companies and management have bailed. He is a great, great singer and warm stage presence. And now his son Matt (twice the size of his dad) is handling the falsettos formerly the speciality, if not trademark of Brian.

He does this with particular sensitivity on the intensely gorgeous ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, Wilson’s rough homage to his hero Phil Spector. Brian never believed it, but he raced beyond Spector’s reach as did his Little Deuce Coupe past a Thunderbird, like it was “standing still” in about 1964, the year he wrote this song.

Much has been said, all of it unkind, about Wilson’s own singing these days, but tonight he sounds strong, confident and there are still echoes of the voice which stunned the world in the sixties. In several songs Brian sings the verse before Matt Jardine takes over for the high parts. It’s not a perfect arrangement but in the most part these segues are, if not seamless, never distracting.

Wilson has perfect pitch. That is to say that if drummer Mike D’Amico counts a song in and Brian begins to sing at the moment the band begins to play, he hits that note perfectly, out of the blue.

People born of this earth aren’t able to do that. For all the criticism of his straining a little for high notes he also never EVER sings flat or sharp. The main earache for an audience at a gig is a vocalist who is out of tune. Brian Wilson doesn’t sing out of tune. Ever.

This is why, even now, the Beach Boys’ songs sound so spectral and unearthly. With every member of the new band able to sing more beautifully than the lead singer of most bands you could name, the harmonies are as close to a spiritual experience as an atheist is ever likely to get.

Pic by Mary Boukouvalas
Pic by Mary Boukouvalas

When ’band secretary’ Darian Sahanaja handles the lead vocals on the … well, groovy is probably the best word to describe ‘Darlin’’, every member of the audience is thinking the same thing; “My God, listen to THAT guy!”

Darian was the musical overseer for the recent Love and Mercy biopic, and that’s some job to tackle. Handling real musicians, dressed up to ‘act’ while actually playing live to ensure the authenticity of the moments when Wilson would shout “Stop ! Stop! Wait. Carol, could you come in half a beat earlier in the last bar before the second chorus,” is daunting surely even to a guy with his phenomenal skills. “Ok ‘God Only Knows’ Take 24.”

You can tell that the movie has made an impact. This is a different crowd to that of any other Brian Wilson tour. Probably forty percent more attendees are under 35 than at the first Pet Sounds or Smile concerts in 2002 and 2005.

“Have you seen my movie!?” Brian shouts out at one stage, obviously proud and delighted with what turned out to be an excellent film.

The heat is turned up with the arrival onstage of Blondie Chaplin. A member of The Rolling Stones for 12 years in the 90s and 2000s, rumour has it that Blondie was politely told he’d no longer be needed because he was too dangerous an influence on Keith Richards. And you can almost believe it. He looks like Keef cross-stitched with Lou Reed – in other words, just a leeedle bit scary. He’s absurdly relaxed like Richards and arrives to play on the songs he co-wrote and played on when he was recruited by the Beach Boys for the Holland LP in 1973.

But first he’s handed vocal duties for the genuinely funky ‘Wild Honey’, a Brian song from the 1967 album of the same name. It’s the perfect set up for Chaplin to turn his Les Paul up to 11, and let rip with some soloing which blows your hair back like a sudden gust of wind.

Strutting the very lip of the stage, and suddenly ducking to his knees (soooo Keith) he casually tears strips of the Palais’s antique wallpaper, wandering around with his guitar on radio mic, a la Angus Young, and visiting each member of the band to duck down next to them before continuing his patrol. When he leans forward so close to the front rows that all of them could take his picture, no-one does, for fear that he might not dig that so much.

Chaplin then sings the sublime ‘Sail On Sailor’, written by Brian’s late ‘60s lyricist Van Dyke Parks, and Wilson himself during an especially grim period of his life (with added touches by producer Jack Reiley). A lazy rocker, its bizarre middle-part key changes explode into a soaring chorus. It’s an unforgettable Beach Boys classic, sung on the record and also tonight by Chaplin, his gravelly soulful voice perfectly suiting the bluesy shuffle of the basic backbeat.

There is then a particularly odd choice of song. One I would rate as amongst the band’s worst, ‘Honkin Down The Highway’ from the, let’s say troublesome, Beach Boys Love You LP. It’s a really, really bad song, and what in the wide wide world of sports it’s doing in the set list is anybody’s guess. In fact talk outside at half time was as much about the band choosing the track, when they have several hundred better ones, as much as how brilliant every other moment was.

Now for Pet Sounds from go to woe.

Pic by Mary Boukouvalas

It’s the record that has been voted the best pop LP of all time by half the rock magazines in the world. Just try and process that before they begin. And begin they do with a delightful series of false starts culled from the original recording sessions. The current band wait in the darkness as we hear Brian’s voice from 1966 stopping his session players (chiefly the legendary LA Wrecking Crew) three or four times after three of four bars and having them start again. My god it must have been hard work, but these guys and ladies were getting paid serious money, so long repetitive stints sitting with their instruments wasn’t such a bad thing.

Finally the false starts end and the real one begins and with its jaunty opening ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ kicks off Pet Sounds with a joyful spring. Things turn fairly reflective and self-questioning straight away though with ‘You Still Believe In Me’, Wilson astonished that his true love sticks to him like Araldite when he believes he’s treated her so badly. The drawn out falsetto on the line “I wanna cry”, which drops on the one last syllable through a whole scale is deeply moving.

‘That’s Not Me’ is more upbeat, our hero not interested in anything but being happily in love. “I could try to be big in the eyes of the world. What matters to me is what I could be to just one girl”

The most gentle song on Pet Sounds is ‘Don’t Talk, Put Your Head On My Shoulder’. As light as filigree, with the vocal melody carrying the song more than any other Beach Boys track, the instruments take a backseat to the double-tracked voices. Just some subtle strings and keyboard washes, with an elegiac string accompaniment and echoes of flute.

‘I’m Waiting For The Day’ shifts between thumping drum, timpani and deep layered vocal and verse sections, to tender choruses, highlighting Wilson’s dramatic application of dynamics within each track.

The instrumental ‘Let’s Go Away For A While’ gives Brian the chance to have a pause. At this time he looks exactly like he did on the couch. Detached from the world around him, including the music, but that would be a very lazy assumption. He’s listening very carefully and you can rest assured that if heard a bum note his head would shoot around like a rocket to see who was responsible.

The song is a sumptuous feast of instrumental variety, with the melody at various points being carried by xylophone, then the addition of swelling strings and horns, before a delicate electric guitar interlude. An acoustic guitar and timpanis provide a rhythmic push. It’s like a Hawaiian holiday in your head.

‘Sloop John B’ is the anomaly on Pet Sounds, but is a much beloved cover from the 1920s which was all Beach Boysed up by the band to create a joyful and satisfying singalong. Al Jardine shines here. He has a wonderful voice, and it’s a privilege to see him right here singing his signature song.

What can be said about ‘God Only Knows’? Described by Paul McCartney as the most beautiful song ever written (“I listen to Pet Sounds and I cry”). Brian handles the first verses with aplomb, with Matt Jardine subtly being passed the baton for the high and falsetto parts. Then there’s the bridge where the band get very busy with their harmonies blending the ’ha ah’s and the ‘barm ba barm ba barm’s with the ‘do do doo do do do doo’s’. Crossing and intertwining in a perfect blend. The overlapping “God only knows what I’d be without you” refrains in the outro are lifted even breathlessly higher by the top layer of falsetto. It’s a fucking great song and the standing ovation at the end said as much.

Originally titled ‘Hang On To Your Ego’ before the unspeakable Mike Love whined his arse off about the ’weird’ title, ‘I Know There’s An Answer’ is the least captivating song on Pet Sounds. That is not to say it’s mediocre, but it’s certainly not anyone’s pick as the record’s high point. Compared to the divinity of most of the other songs, it’s just a solid Beach Boys number.

‘Here Today’ sounds a little more like a song from Brian’s best writing in 1964. So it’s brilliant but less experimental than most of the album.

The gob-smacking modernism returns immediately though with ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’. Again Wilson feels like an outsider yearning for love and affection, sensing that the world is spinning too fast, and that spiritual understanding and depth in relationships are being sheared away by the sheer pace of the post-war newly capitalistic America. “I’ve been looking for a place to fit in where I can speak my mind.” The heartbreaking cry of “Sometimes I feel very sad” is so deeply mined from the soul it’s almost unbearable. Just before the last chorus there’s a fade of all the instruments, and in comes a theremin ‘lead break’ which must have blown the 1966 listener into next week. What is THAT?

‘Pet Sounds’ is the second instrumental on the album. Written with a James Bond theme in mind there’s a lot of twang and echo on Nicky Walusko’s guitar as he carries the main melody, accompanied by powerful horns.

The last song on the record is ‘Caroline No’ the most poignant track of them all. Lost love is the great human tragedy and it’s summed up here in the one line “Where did your long hair go? Where is the girl I used to know?” When Matt Jardine sings “Oh Caroline you break my heart I wanna go and cry. It’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die”, you honestly feel that life is worth clinging onto for moments of transcendental beauty like this, so make the most of them. I just closed my eyes and thought, “Here it comes…the greatest moment in musical history. And I’m here looking at the man who created it.”

At 74 years of age, after a decade and a half where his survival seemed unlikely, he’s hanging out in St Kilda. Just think about how special that is.

And that was Pet Sounds. Breathtaking, extraordinary, a masterpiece.

Pic by Mary Boukouvalas
Pic by Mary Boukouvalas

The band return for the “Get up off of your seats” encore, which includes a profoundly satisfying recital of perhaps the greatest pop single ever, “Good Vibrations”, then the stuff that you think was kinda dopey, until you realize how complex the harmonies are; ‘Fun Fun Fun’, ‘Barbara Ann’, ‘Surfing USA’.

Predictably the show closes with Brian’s 1988 song ‘Love and Mercy’, now presumed to be a new track due to the movie of the same name. It’s a sweet, sad, gentle, sensitive, plaintive tune. It’s Brian Wilson summing himself up in two and a half minutes “Why is there so much pain and cruelty? Why are people homeless? Why can’t there be more love?”

There’s so much love from the audience as the last note fades that the roof nearly comes off the Palais. It was a brilliant performance by every member of the band, who all have to work incredibly hard all the time to reproduce Wilson’s studio masterpieces. A night to remember.

After the Brain Wilson show at the Byron Bay Blues Festival, the belligerent Sydney Morning Herald journalist Bernard Zuel savaged the band and Brian for their performance in difficult conditions. A ten piece band with the eleventh being Wilson, had to battle a swirling wind and bad onstage sounds, and that was enough for Zuel to decide that Brian should give it up. He said the band had lost their mojo. It was a spiteful piece of writing and only encouraged the band to deliver a cracking show the next night at the Opera House.

Brian Wilson should give up when he feels like it. Whoever expected after his 2014 Beach Boys 50th anniversary tour that we would see him again? This guy is playing for his fans in his seventies. It’s a miracle and who would bet that he might not be quite done with his visits to Melbourne just yet?

Thanks to Michael for the review. See more of Mary’s photos at


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