Review: Brian Wilson’s Bittersweet Holiday Affair

Brian Wilson is one of the only artists ever to have both a sound and a story that’s used as acceptable short hand. Just like how anyone using lush harmonies with unique instrumentation is being Brian Wilson, anyone who swears off touring and becomes a damaged recluse is also being Brian Wilson.

It’s fascinating then that the real Wilson, by continuing to tour, further activates one of his clichés while amending the other. Monday’s Christmas show was the third time in the last six years that I’ve seen him – the others being as part of The Beach Boys 50th anniversary in 2012 and in 2016 when he played all of Pet Sounds. By all accounts Wilson seems to genuinely enjoy performing. Anyone with a clue of what the man has gone through can be amazed at the sheer sight of him walking onstage in front of an audience.

But that’s when the Brian Wilson live experience gets tricky. Wilson is a borderline inactive member of his own show. His singing voice is shaky, he often forgets to come in, and his piano playing is almost non existent. He spends the vast majority of the concert sitting still with a glazed stare while the music happens around him. It is inspiring to just be in his presence but I often feel a sympathy for Brian Wilson akin to a zoo animal – wondering if he would rather be somewhere, anywhere else.

I had been in partial denial of this reality until this most recent Christmas tour Monday night. A lot of that had to do with the show itself. Wilson only played a marginal, supporting role in that incredible Beach Boys reunion tour. So much was happening around him (it is criminal that Mike Love pulled the plug on that reunion after only a token number of dates) that his faults were of little consequence overall. I spent most of the Pet Sounds Concert absorbing the various textures that blew my mind about that album in the first place. The Christmas show tried for a similar approach – playing the entire Beach Boys Christmas album – but it didn’t translate nearly as well. It’s not an album in the sense that Pet Sounds is, it’s not quite as popular, and it’s top heavy in its sequencing.

Not to say this concert totally lacked in showmanship. For one, the backing band is exceptional and nails the difficult vocal harmonies with ease. Al Jardine remains an ever faithful sidekick and still sounds great. Blondie Chaplain is more of a court jester and less a meaningful contributor but his comic relief was admittedly necessary in a show with its share of awkward pauses.

This time it felt like Wilson really was the star or at least was set up to be. Instead he felt like a drawback. None of this detracts from the big picture of Wilson’s ultimate triumph. I root so hard for him, but it’s also not like I was attending for free. The amount of forgiveness required of the audience on Wilson’s behalf is trying even for the most die hard of fans. At what point is it okay to cross over from encouraging disciple to eager consumer wanting entertainment?

 

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