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PREVIEW: Brian Wilson to return to Tanglewood for ‘Pet Sounds’ performance

Brian Wilson's vocal arrangements have never been easy to perform, even for the Beach Boys in their prime. Still, this band does it every night. They produce an impossibly lush vocal texture by executing all their parts with mind-blowing precision.

Lenox — When Brian Wilson last appeared at Tanglewood, he and his band were on tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Pet Sounds,” the Beach Boys‘ most celebrated record album and Rolling Stone magazine’s Number 2 pick for the best album of all time. On Sunday, June 16, Wilson and band return to Tanglewood for another go at their “Pet Sounds” program. Yes, Brian still bills his shows that way. But with half the songs coming from other albums, these concerts really amount to greatest-hits shows. (His encore set alone qualifies as such.)

Most people purchasing tickets for the June 16 “Pet Sounds” show want to know just two things:

Image courtesy brianwilson.com

1. Does the Brian Wilson band perform every cut from “Pet Sounds” perfectly?

According to some of the world’s harshest critics, the answer is yes. However, the band’s concert performances may at times eclipse the original recordings, owing mainly to the quality of vocal forces Brian deploys on stage. For example, it’s hard to say whether the original album version of “God Only Knows” is better than the band’s live performance of the song. It’s a tough call, but we have the very same difficulty with “In My Room,” “Sloop John B” and other classics on the program.

Brian Wilson’s vocal arrangements have never been easy to perform, even for the Beach Boys in their prime. Still, this band does it every night. They produce an impossibly lush vocal texture by executing all their parts with mind-blowing precision. But, honestly, what else would you expect from a guy who places vocal harmonies above all else?

Brian Wilson in concert. Photo courtesy brianwilson.com

2. Is Brian Wilson’s singing voice strong enough to perform all these songs in one concert?

For the most part, yes. In any case, it’s nothing to worry about: In the event Brian experiences an “Icarus moment” mid-phrase (something all septuagenarian vocalists deal with), you won’t even hear it, because the ever-ingenious inventor of Beach Boys harmonies uses a simple but effective technique to deal with vocal imperfections in real time. It involves no high-tech gadgetry, and it most certainly does not involve lip-syncing. Instead, it relies on old-fashioned musicianship: Matt Jardine deftly shadows Brian’s lead vocals, singing softly with him in perfect unison — just as if he were double-tracking a vocal in a recording studio. And it works. (Please do not try this at home unless you are capable of faithfully imitating Brian Wilson’s distinctive vocal timbre and precisely reproducing his phrasing.)

Plenty of pop singers are still going strong decades after their classically trained contemporaries succumbed to the rigors of singing professionally night after night, year after year. (It’s probably only a myth, though, that today’s divas aren’t getting enough cigarettes and whisky. They simply aren’t getting enough of Mick Jagger.) It’s no secret that untrained street musicians who have spent decades singing “incorrectly” frequently outlast properly trained opera singers.

Yes, Brian Wilson can still sing like Brian Wilson. In fact, more than a few critics over the last couple of decades have marveled at the quality of his voice.

* * * * *

All members of Brian’s band are (as you would expect) highly accomplished players, some having solo careers of their own. But three musicians in particular deserve special mention:

Al Jardine. Photo: Randy Straka

Al Jardine – As a founding member of the Beach Boys, Mr. Jardine plays a prominent role in Brian Wilson’s shows. That’s why his name is on the bill. His voice has always been an essential ingredient in the group’s unique and magical vocal blend. And he still sounds like himself. Wonderful.

Matthew Jardine (mentioned above) is Al Jardine’s son. This young man has genuine Beach Boys DNA in his blood, and his voice reveals it magically. The vocal parts he handles single-voicedly on stage required as many as three different singers on the original recordings. When Matt starts singing the lead vocal on “God Only Knows,” watch for all the open mouths in the crowd. One of them will be yours.

Blondie Chaplin

Blondie Chaplin became a full member of the Beach Boys in 1972 and remained with the group for about one year, which was all the time he needed to bring a “harder and funkier edge” to the band. You may not recognize his name or face, but you’ll certainly recognize the sound of his voice as lead singer on the Beach Boys’ 1973 hit “Sail On Sailor.” (All the other Beach Boys took a shot at that vocal in 1973, but only Chaplin could pull it off with aplomb—in two takes.)

Blondie Chaplin is one hell of a rock ‘n’ roll entertainer. When he straps on a Les Paul and steps onto the stage, a whole new level of energy comes with him. He makes you truly grateful that someone invented the electric guitar.

A critic once complained about Chaplin’s “tendency to launch into extended guitar solos.”

What?? That’s why he’s there, for crying out loud! In addition to his time with the Beach Boys, Chaplin played guitar for the Rolling Stones for about a decade. Wouldn’t you like to hear what he can do with it?

* * * * *

When prominent hit-makers like Brian Wilson, Dolly Parton and James Taylor perform at Tanglewood, they aren’t exactly desperate for the money. They give concerts mainly because they like to, and their fans in the back row can sense this. Brian Wilson knows his audience well and enjoys pleasing them. But who knows how much longer he will continue to give concerts? Maybe a month, maybe a decade. But not forever.

Brian has stated that vocal harmonies are his way of bringing love to the world. Go ahead and roll your eyes, but be prepared to dry them when he launches into your favorite Beach Boys song at Tanglewood on Sunday, June 16.

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