Thursday, 21 January 2010

630 BRIAN WILSON, Bristol Colston Hall, Tuesday 2 March 2004

Recently, gig-wise, I've gone through a real revisiting of my rock'n'roll history; never mind Suede and the Wonderstuff, we're talking Bowie and Arthur Lee here! And (despite my assertion of Bowie having been the inventor of modern music as we know it), here was arguably the Daddy of the lot; Brian Wilson, the legendary reclusive genius of the Beach Boys, the 60's band who wrote the book on pop not only as an irresistible melodic and harmonic force, but also as sonic experimentation and art form. 2 years ago, we'd blanched at the £50 ticket price for his "Pet Sounds" tour and regretted it ever since. As no less an authority as Neil Young said, "seeing Brian Wilson will be like being able to say you'd seen Tchaikovsky perform." So this time we'd booked tickets early, particularly intrigued as the centrepiece of this tour would be "Smile", the legendary "lost" Beach Boys album, the one which, while trying to outdo the stratospherically high standards he'd set with the groundbreaking "Pet Sounds", drove Wilson to the brink of insanity via huge consumption of recreational pharmaceuticals. Oft bootlegged, yet no-one really knew how it should have sounded - except Wilson himself!

So, to Bristol then, and, slight parking-mare sorted, we took our seats at 10 to 8 after a drink on the packed, old and coupley-populated bar. Wilson and his 11-piece band took the stage at 8 to a standing ovation, whence, led by bandleader Steve Toskett, they sat in a close-knit horseshoe to sing a clutch of pindrop-perfect harmonic acapella/ acoustic numbers. The between-group banter immediately established a rapport with the audience, which was necessary, as it was soon apparent Wilson himself wasn't fully with us tonight. At 62, the voice was still good, although occasionally the honeyed larynx of Foskett carried the vocal lead, but Wilson was at best ill-at-ease onstage. To be honest, given his reputation and history, I expected no less really.

The opening hour was a selection of late-period beach Boys stuff, and the more traditional blues-based solo stuff. "God Only Knows", one of the greatest songs EVER written, shone like a beacon in the fog, but that was even eclipsed by a lush atmospheric rendition of "Sloop John B", plangent and copiously harmonic, before an interval.

We got ice cream before the band's reappearance at 9.20 for a start-to-finish rendering of "Smile". Laid end-to-end, Wilson's vision of Americana and soundscaping genius sounds radical and cutting-edge even today - God only knows what it sounded like back in 1967! The intricacy of melody, interwoven with waves of harmonic detail, and the recurrent theme of travel were all evident. The songs melded together perfectly as a fully-realised whole entity, although the climax "Good Vibrations", the Beach Boys' zenith of achievement, stood out like a shining light at the end of a strange and wondrous journey.

To be honest, I'd have been happy for the gig, nay, "performance", to end there, but Foskett introduced the band, and Wilson himself, for the encore. As if to lighten the mood, they played the surf-pop early Beach Boys classics, such as "Fun Fun Fun", "I Get Around" and the disjointed yet fun "Barbara-Ann", ending the evening on a lighter, sing-along note. One more encore, "Love And Mercy", and it was over. Sonically, this was one of the most extraordinary shows of my gigging days, a brilliant group reverently sharing the vision of a true musical genius. Although carried, performance-wise, Brian Wilson's vision and genius was on full display, and I can echo Neil Young's sentiments and say that I've seen Brian Wilson.

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