The State Theatre, Sydney
January 8 (That Lucky Old Sun) and 9 (Pet Sounds), 2008.
We have been lucky in Sydney this decade with a number of opportunities to hear Brian Wilson’s intricately orchestrated music in small halls with superb acoustics. The centrepiece of his Tuesday performance for the 2008 Sydney Festival was the not-yet-recorded song cycle That Lucky Old Sun (composed with the help of Van Dyke Parks and Scott Bennett, and premiered at the Royal Festival Hall in London last September). On Wednesday the audience were treated to a complete performance of his masterpiece Pet Sounds (1966).
Although it is a thrill to see Wilson performing onstage at the age of sixty-five – part of an unlikely late career resurgence that has also seen him finish Smile – his voice is only a shred of its original glory. What makes his performances so worthwhile is the ten-piece ensemble who honour Wilson’s original orchestrations and vocal arrangements.
Jeffrey Foskett vocals, guitar
Darian Sanahaja vocals, keys, mallets
Nick Walusko vocals, guitar
Probyn Gregory vocals, guitar, horns
Scott Bennett vocals, keys, mallets, guitar
Taylor Mills vocals, hand percussion
Jim Hines drums
Paul Mertens horns
Bob Lizik bass
Nelson Bragg vocals, percussion
Both shows began with a set of crowd-pleasing Beach Boys hits – ‘Catch A Wave’, ‘Hawaii’, ‘Surfer Girl’, ‘In My Room’, ‘California Girls’ and more. On Tuesday there was nothing post-‘Good Vibrations’ except for the opener ‘Do It Again’ and the 1972 single ‘Marcella’, but on Wednesday we heard ‘Add Some Music To Your Day’ and the Wild Honey track ‘I’d Love Just Once To See You’ (“…in the nude”). My last Brian Wilson concert – a 2002 State Theatre Pet Sounds show with the same band – was much less focused on the early 1960s hits. Back then it was great to hear the ensemble recreate the quirky orchestrations of lost Smile tracks (before its 2004 assembly), as well as ‘Good Timin’’, ‘Melt Away’, ‘Your Imagination’ and ‘Sail On Sailor’. The slightly safer 2008 setlist may have been designed for the more general Sydney Festival audience.
The ensemble, embellished with a local string quintet and a few horns, gave a predictably capable performance of the complete Pet Sounds on Wednesday night. The pensive ‘Let’s Go Away For Awhile’ seemed to me the highlight.
While no Pet Sounds, That Lucky Old Sun is probably the most important piece of (mostly) new Brian Wilson music since The Beach Boys Love You back in 1978. The exciting news is not the quality of the new songs, although there are some great ones – ‘Good Kind of Love’, ‘Midnight’s Another Day’, ‘Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl’, the very Parkesque ‘California Role’ and ‘Southern California’. After all, Wilson has never entirely stopped writing decent tunes. No, the most pleasing aspect of the new work is the classically Wilsonesque use of orchestral colours – saxophones, strings, bass harmonica, organ, marimba, etc. – the kind of timeless orchestrations he created for Pet Sounds and Smile.
Van Dyke Parks once again explores an Orange Crate Art Californiana theme in his allusive style (although there isn’t much of the ‘acid alliteration’ that so chuffed Mike Love back in the 1960s). Narrated passages are accompanied by projected animations. A lyric from the revived mid-1990s Wilson/Andy Paley track ‘Going Home’ will probably be much quoted in the press when this music is finally released to the public:
At twenty-five I turned out the light
Cause I couldn’t handle the glare in my tired eyes
but now I’m back drawing shades of kind blue skies.
Of course it has not been that simple, but the very fact of Brian Wilson composing fully-conceived new music for a devoted and very capable band in the year 2008 feels slightly surreal.
Darian Sahanaja told me after the show that the band are soon to return to the U.S. to record That Lucky Old Sun. Wilson may expand the thirty-five minute work for the album release. Fortunately no M.O.R. producers are likely to interfere with the recording as used to happen in the 1980s and 1990s. Give us Brian Wilson with all his quirks, naivety and humour. I look forward to the album release of this joyous new Lucky Old Sun, beautifully orchestrated and performed by Wilson’s heroic band.
Here they are in 2004 performing the Smile version of ‘Heroes and Villains’:
Keep watch for a future blog post on the Beach Boys and pop music mythology.