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Happy to be in . . . our town: Wilson at SPAC.

photo:Martin Benjamin

The Boy . . .
By David Greenberger

Brian Wilson

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 14

‘Hey Chuck, is it possible we can bring a horse in here if we don’t screw anything up?” It was 1966, and Brian Wilson’s question caught studio engineer Chuck Britz by surprise, his response being a simple, “I beg your pardon?” Wilson’s further explanation was, “I want to get a picture of the horse in front of the microphone. Honest to God, the horse is tame and everything.”

Of the scores of Brian Wilson anecdotes that get passed along, that’s my favorite. The never-taken photo was an idea he had for the cover of Pet Sounds. Wilson is a man of ideas. A cursory stroll through the recorded output of the Beach Boys bears this out. For half a decade he was in full flight, but with the one-two punch of Pet Sound’s commercial failure and the scuttling of Smile, Wilson unraveled rapidly. By the end of the ’60s he was a figurehead for a successful oldies act, with flashes of his artistry still in evidence, but either brief and fragmentary or achingly slow in coming.

When Brian Wilson returned to regular performing in the late ’90s, he moved quickly from presenting a selection of Beach Boy and solo songs to large-scale undertakings, first playing Pet Sounds in its entirety with a large ensemble, and then last year moving on to the aborted Smile project. Completing the album some 37 years after it was begun has been a welcome surprise. What could have been disastrous is an artistic triumph, though of a different sort than if it had appeared when originally intended. Wilson’s original efforts were part of a quest to push ever onwards and upwards artistically, topping himself with each new work. Coupled with the changing musical landscape (which includes several generations of artists influenced by Wilson), he’s been living on the plateaus he reached and surpassed decades ago, scaling no higher.

Joined by a 10-piece band and an additional eight string and horn players, Wilson performed two sets for a two-and-a-half hour show on Sunday at SPAC. The first started with “Do It Again” (a comeback single for the Beach Boys in 1968, it made clear a desire to reclaim their hitmaking status by nakedly referencing themselves and their past, basically laying out the easier approach they would follow to the end) and on through a dozen and a half more. Wilson’s stiff stage manner was jarring for its peculiarity when he first returned to active performing, but having grown accustomed to it, now hardly warrants mention. His geometric arm movements seemed odd mainly on a quiet and slower song like “In My Room.” Wilson sat centerstage behind a keyboard he didn’t audibly use; the well-rehearsed band were being discreetly led by guitarist (and longtime Beach Boy hired player) Jeffrey Foskett and keyboardist Darian Sahanaja. High points included the giddy “When I Grow Up” and the magical instrumental “Pet Sounds.”

After an intermission, Smile was played in its entirety. While it was plagued with excessive bass in the mix, the ambitiousness and majesty of the work was undeniable. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, a number of the songs found their way out, grafted onto other, lesser releases (the alluring “Cabin Essence” stuck out like a sore thumb on the otherwise middling 20/20 album). Restored (and in some places completed) to Smile, their repeating and interlocking themes reveal the artistry that Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks brought to bear.

The night was a celebration of Brian Wilson and his music. The sophistication of his writing and arrangements allowed the exemplary musicians to be immersed in the repertoire. It was bracing, vital, and riveting music, breathing in the moment, without depending on nostalgia to give it life.

. . . and the Band

The Beach Boys

Doubleday Field, Cooperstown, Aug. 11

The prevailing wisdom among music nuts is that if you’re captivated by the Beach Boys’ mystique, the show to see this summer is not the titular group (which consists of original singer Mike Love, longtime member Bruce Johnston and a bunch of talented hired hands), but the Brian Wilson tour. Wilson is, after all, the much-mythologized songwriter and studio Svengali responsible for the Beach Boys sound. (Wilson has also benefited from the strain of mental-illness chic that runs through rock & roll lore. His incapacitating mental problems and notorious drug use provide legendary fodder.)

But consider this: Wilson took himself off the road in the mid-’60s due to encroaching anxiety and a desire to hole himself up in the studio to further his vision. It was a fine move in that it resulted in the gravity-defying Pet Sounds (and the aborted piecemeal Smile). But it also points to Wilson’s strength: songwriting and studio work. And throughout all of those years, Mike Love and the other Beach Boys have continued as a vital touring unit.

So, having seen Wilson live in New York City a few years back (a remote, Baloo the Bear-like figure propped up at a small keyboard, singing out of the side of his mouth and miming wave motions with his hands while a veritable pop orchestra carried things), I was eager to see Mike Love’s incarnation—eager to hear the car and surf songs rolled out one after the other.

And this version of the Beach Boys (Love owns the name) delivered, starting by blazing through 11 early hits nonstop, led off by “California Girls.” It was the ultimate Americana-pop experience, with the large, sophisticated stage setup in the nether regions of centerfield in Doubleday. Love and crew, primarily decked out in Hawaiian shirts, burned through every stage of the Beach Boys career, with a particularly moving suite of selections from Pet Sounds (kicked off by “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”). Since Love sings lead on so many of the group’s hits—and because he was backed by such a crack crew of musicians and vocalists—one never really felt like they were missing anything from the Beach Boys experience. (In fact, the live version of “Surfer Girl” was better than the studio single, with even more breezy delicacy in the harmonies and instrumentation.) The sound was large and rich and the arrangements much stronger than expected.

As for the audience, they spanned decades, with numerous kids dancing and cavorting with beach balls in the outfield. Peter Noone opened the show with a modern-day lineup of Herman’s Hermits. Noone played to his strengths, breaking up the crowd with his in-between-song jokes and self-deprecating banter. And while the performance didn’t rival that of the Beach Boys, a finale of “There’s a Kind of Hush (All Over the World)” was stunning.

—Erik Hage

Don’t Call It a Comeback

Loretta Lynn

Turning Stone Casino Showroom, Verona, Aug. 11

It’s ironic that country music legends have to hang with rock hipsters to sell records and get their proper due these days; it’s arguable that Johnny Cash’s death last year would not have been as widely noted if he hadn’t had his Rick Rubin-masterminded, late-career resurgence.

In this manner, Loretta Lynn’s terrific 2004 album Van Lear Rose, produced by Jack White, earned her new fans, a couple of Grammys and a well-deserved place back in the spotlight. Some of these new listeners mingled with her long-time fans in the swanky Showroom of Verona’s Turning Stone Casino a week ago Thursday.

After her daughters sang and her backing band cranked out a few numbers, Lynn walked on stage in the grand country style, wearing the whitest, poofiest prom-dress-on-acid within a thousand miles of Music City. She sang three or four numbers, and then told the audience that “this is your show, tell me what you want to hear!”

Someone called out “Blue Kentucky Girl.” Lynn looked at her bandleader, and launched into a flawless version of this early hit. Same with “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man),” “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind),” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” (Someone kept calling out “the Squaw,” as in her 1960s hit “Your Squaw Is On the Warpath,” but Lynn wisely ignored the request in this Native American-owned casino.) The clarity and punch (sometimes literally, as in “Fist City”) of her songwriting remains shocking in its effectiveness and honesty; you’re never in doubt where Loretta Lynn stands on any given issue, from man-stealing women to drunken husbands.

She can do this because the Coal Miners, her six-piece old-school Nashville backing band, are superb musicians capable of changing instruments on the fly, and stopping on a dime to start a new song. For example, the speed with which one of the guitarists unplugged his electric six-string and strapped on a banjo when Lynn said “let’s do ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ ” was superhero-caliber.

In fact, the only song on which she needed help with lyrics was new—“Van Lear Rose,” for which dragged her daughter Peggy on stage to sing with her as a duet.

The Lynns, the singing duo of twin daughters Peggy and Patsy, opened the evening. Their music was, necessarily, more modern-country-radio friendly, but with just enough old-style Nashville echoes in the crystal-clear harmonies to charm the most hardened traditionalist.

—Shawn Stone

Lights, Camera, Racket

Pere Ubu

MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass., Aug. 12

It’s a backhanded compliment and a kind of regional running joke that one of the great things about Albany is the ease with which you can get out of Albany to head for other, much more interesting, places. But, you know, if the shoe fits.

Albany’s got its fair share of culture; for a midsized capital city, we don’t do too badly. But Pere Ubu’s live performance of their original soundtrack to the ’60s sci-fi schlock film The Man with the X-Ray Eyes just wasn’t an event likely to be staged with any success on our home turf. By way of example, when Phillip Glass performed his own soundtrack for the movie Dracula at the Egg, the venue was only two-thirds full. Albanians have somewhat more, um, conservative tastes in entertainment (Cough, cover bands, cough. Cough, free shows, cough. Cough, nostalgia circuit, cough.) Thank god for MASS MoCA.

The film was screened in the museum’s Hunter Center, with the band—Ubu’s main man David Thomas conducting a guitarist, bassist, percussionist and a synthesizer-theremin player—crowded at stage left. MASS MoCA’s press stuff described Thomas as “a dark god of the avant rock world” and promised that he would conduct “the proceedings with a menacing intensity.” Folks familiar with Thomas’ history of arty racket could probably take that at face value; but as a description of an underscore for one of the goofiest, unintentionally hysterical pieces of filmic crap known, it might’ve seemed an overstatement.

It was not an overstatement.

Viewers were faced with the difficult choice of focusing attention on the screen antics of an over-the-hill Ray Milland, portraying a driven scientist treating himself as a test subject in an experiment to develop super-human vision, and the stage antics of Thomas—himself the seeming possessor of some extra-human vision. “Menacing” pretty well fits the bill. He shrieked and bellowed and gesticulated wildly, sometimes seeming to directly challenge or chastise his musicians. One moment he was leaning forward beyond his music stand to instruct his guitarist to “play something soft and beautiful;” moments later, he was batting his chair across the stage, yelling off-mike, “Fuck it!” It was like watching the Elmer Fudd of What’s Opera, Doc?—if Fudd had been a hardcore tweaker with a penchant for Beefheart.

The score itself was equally moody, ranging from delicate and tremulous chordal shadings to aggressive, metallic, theremin-threaded freakouts. Here and there, song structures emerged—most humorously during a dance-party scene in which our scientist tests his new-and-improved peepers by indulging in some peeping—but, generally, the band prioritized feel over form. (A quick postshow glance at the music stands showed that the band were working more with visual cues and adjectives than real charts.)

The intensity of the musical performance coupled with the laughably overwrought earnestness of the film and the pleasant informality of the venue—MASS MoCA allows patrons to come and go from the center freely and to bring food and beer and wine into the show—made for an evening well worth the drive from conveniently situated Albany.

—John Rodat


“I just want to say how great it is to play here in . . . your town.”

–Brian Wilson to the (Saratoga Springs) audience at SPAC on Sunday.


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