The wife and I went to see Brian Wilson in Durham the other night, a thrilling and genuinely great concert, two exhilarating hours that flew by in what seemed like about 30 minutes.
Wilson doesn’t sing much these days — they say the legs are the first thing to go, and the voice is no doubt second — but he’s surrounded himself with a jaw-dropping collection of musical talent, a 12-piece backing band built around fellow Beach Boys founder Al Jardine and the spectacular LA group the Wondermints. When Wilson did take his turn at the microphone, especially on the half-dozen or so songs from his new album Pier Pressure, his voice may have sounded a bit worn in places, but was always warm and oh-so familiar and comforting. If Wilson doesn’t hit all the notes any longer, he doesn’t have to. He leaves that to his incredible band, spreading the wealth around much as he did back in the day with the Beach Boys.
Jardine’s son Matt handled Wilson’s falsetto vocal parts flawlessly (he absolutely crushed it on “Don’t Worry Baby”). Wondermints co-founder Darian Sahanaja sang the lead part on “Darlin’ ” and turned in a stunning cover that rivaled Carl Wilson’s original lead vocal from 1967’s Wild Honey album. The elder Jardine took the lead on most of the rest of the vintage Beach Boys material, of which there was an abundance. The backing ensemble was flawless instrumentally, and performed sheer magic on all those signature Beach Boys vocal harmony arrangements. It was, simply, a phenomenal concert.
And so I got to scratch one more legend from my bucket list of concerts to see before I hit life’s exit ramp. And with Brian Wilson’s name removed, the remaining list suddenly isn’t all that impressive. Six weeks from my 64th birthday, I’ve seen most of the great musical acts of my lifetime. Most of the rest are either dead or no longer playing. What remains is a rather skimpy list of performers, few of whom I’d characterize as must-see.
Van Morrison, Neil Young and Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra are probably the top three names here, each of them a heavy hitter, and I’d especially like the chance to see Morrison and Lynne. John Fogerty, Patti Smith and David Bowie also reside in rock’s high-rent district. I hope to see them all, but it’s funny how that works. I’d love to see Crosby, Stills & Nash, too, but I’ve passed on multiple opportunities to see them in the past, so what does that say? I’ve also passed on Ringo Starr more than once, but probably will break down and go the next time he plays within driving distance. He is a Beatle, after all.
All in all, it’s a lightweight list compared to the names on the stubs in my ticket-stub box — Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan & the Band, Eric Clapton, the Who, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, the Grateful Dead, Fairport Convention, Joni Mitchell, the Allman Brothers Band, and now Brian Wilson.
If there’s a moral to this story, it escapes me. I started this to pay tribute to Brian Wilson’s greatness and genius, so let’s leave it at that. Bruce Springsteen is, for me anyway, the greatest musical artist this country has ever produced, but Brian Wilson’s is one of the few names also in that conversation. And Wilson’s all-time masterpiece, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, is easily the greatest record ever made by an American act.
There is a rival band out there — fronted by Wilson's cousin and fellow original Beach Boy Mike Love — that goes by the name the Beach Boys, but don’t be fooled. Love may have won the legal claim to the name “Beach Boys” many years ago, but Wilson and his touring band are superior by a factor of about a thousand.
Brian Wilson may prove to be the last legend I'll get to scratch from my bucket list. If so, no complaints here. There’s something to be said for saving the best for last.