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MUSIC REVIEW: Good vibrations, ‘unhinged abandon’ at Tanglewood with Brian Wilson

Audience members, still on their feet, showed signs they might be close to losing their minds. More than a few wept openly.

Lenox — This looks like a pretty good set list for a Brian-Wilson’s-greatest-hits concert, doesn’t it?

  • Good Vibrations
  • All Summer Long
  • Help Me Rhonda
  • Barbara Ann
  • Surfin’ USA
  • Fun, Fun, Fun
  • Love and Mercy

Sure. But this was just the encore to Wilson’s June 19 concert at Tanglewood. By the time the band had departed the Shed stage for the last time, the group had performed more than 30 Brian Wilson hits.

Only 30? That would mean they left out a few.

That’s right. More than a few, actually. In a perfect world, Brian would have performed every song his fans wanted to hear. But a concert like that would run somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 hours. Wilson has written a lot of songs over the past 50 years.

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Brian Wilson performing in concert at Tanglewood, June 19, 2016. Photo: Hilary Scott

On Sunday, Brian walked onstage to a high-decibel standing ovation, shouted something to his band, and launched into “Heroes and Villains.” Audience members, still on their feet, showed signs they might be close to losing their minds. More than a few wept openly.

Then, in fast succession, came “California Girls,” “Dance, Dance, Dance,” and “You’re So Good To Me,” all drawing ever more frenzied responses from the Tanglewood crowd. Just when folks seemed to be settling down, the opening measures of “In My Room” sent them all back into a lather of ecstasy. 

Then came “Surfer Girl,” and the cheering now reached such a pitch that you’d think you were seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. 

To picture this scene, you need to keep in mind that most of these overwrought fans are in their sixties and seventies, the eldest being white-haired survivors of Woodstock. (Brian himself is 74 years old.) 

Once the crowd had come to their senses after “Surfer Girl,” Al Jardine introduced his son, Matt, who astonished everyone with a perfectly executed lead vocal performance of “Don’t Worry Baby.” Before the boy had gotten through even eight measures of the song, most folks in the crowd had again lost their wits and were cheering Matt with unhinged abandon.

But what kind of alchemy was this? Those who had never heard of Matt were amazed and delighted, because his singing voice sounds an awful lot like his father’s. Except for when it sounds just like Brian’s. In any case, with Matt onstage, the band’s vocal blend sounded uncannily familiar.

Brian Wilson, performing Beach Boys greatest hits. Photo: Hilary Scott
Brian Wilson, performing Beach Boys greatest hits. Photo: Hilary Scott

There were never fewer than seven musicians covering the classic harmonies Brian and the Beach Boys are famous for. On a couple of numbers there were nine singers. As you can imagine, the band had gone to considerable trouble to ensure their background harmonies would be perfect. And, from the very outset, they were. (The guys in Chanticleer couldn’t have sung this material any better.) This helped keep Brian’s fans in a continual state of mesmerized bliss throughout the concert. It’s what everyone had come to hear, and they were not disappointed.    

Matt Jardine stayed onstage for the remainder of the concert to share the spotlight with his father and Brian, sometimes singing in unison with Brian and at other times going it alone on high falsetto notes that are no longer within his father’s or Brian’s comfort zone. This tag-team approach worked very well indeed: The singing was consistently strong and always sounded like the Beach Boys. Everyone knew they were witnessing something extraordinary.

And so it went throughout the first half of the concert. It was one hit after another interrupted by standing ovations: “Wake the World.” “Add Some Music to Your Day.” “One Kind of Love” (a song Brian wrote for his wife recently). “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (a goofy but relevant prank). “I Get Around” (a serious adolescent-road-cruising number).

At this point in the show, special guest and long-time Beach Boys guitarist Blondie Chaplin arrived onstage to play guitar and sing lead on “Wild Honey” and “Sail On, Sailor.”

Chaplin likes to clown around a bit onstage. But when he straps on his Les Paul Gold Top, the Rolling Stones alumnus gets down to the serious business of rock ‘n’ roll. Chaplin is a veteran guitarist of formidable skill and legendary stature. 

Was that a real theremin on “Wild Honey”? Yes, it was, and we knew we hadn’t heard the last of it.

Following Intermission, it was time for the main act, “Pet Sounds.” This was, after all, “The Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour,” and Brian had promised to perform all the songs from the 1966 release that is now considered one of the most influential albums in the history of recorded music. Brian kept his promise on Sunday and performed every track from thePet Sounds” album.

The most popular cuts from “Pet Sounds” are probably “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B,” “Caroline, No,” and one other song, the song Brian considers the best he’s ever written. It’s Paul McCartney’s favorite song of all time, “God Only Knows,” and it drew the loudest, most prolonged, and most meaningful response from the Tanglewood crowd on Sunday.

Following the title album’s last song, “Caroline, No,” the band made a pro forma departure and walked off the stage, at which point everyone in the crowd knew they’d soon get to hear the most beloved song in the Beach Boys’ canon, “Good Vibrations.” Within just a few moments, Brian and band had returned to the Shed stage and were playing . . . “Good Vibrations,” replete with theremin and background vocals to die for. The remainder of their encore is the stuff of legends.

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