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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Review: Brian Wilson quivers his way through Pet Sounds concert in Dubai

An ever-growing wave of vintage acts today elect to perform classic albums live in their entirety – and its a marketing trend for which Brian Wilson arguably helped pioneer, now with his third tour celebrating Pet Sounds.
Brian Wilson Former Beach Boy and band performing Pet Sounds. Antonie Robertson/  The National
Brian Wilson Former Beach Boy and band performing Pet Sounds. Antonie Robertson/ The National

An ever-growing wave of vintage acts today elect to perform classic albums live in their entirety – and it’s a marketing trend which Brian Wilson arguably helped pioneer, with previous touring spectacles celebrating The Beach Boys’s seminal Pet Sounds LP, in 2000 and 2006.

The idea of playing the same album, in full, night after night, certainly feels rather less unusual in 2016, as Wilson now marks Pet Sounds’s 50th anniversary with a 100-plus-date tour which made an unlikely stop at Dubai Tennis Stadium on November 3.

“This is not rock n’ roll,” warned Wilson from the stage, as the band began the 40-odd minutes of music which make up his undisputed masterpiece. That it is not; Pet Sounds is many things – lush, layered and intricate, swooning with gorgeous harmonies and baroque textures – but it remains essentially a studio creation. The idea of performing the whole thing, note-perfect and in-sequence, would have sounded mad in 1966, and remains foolhardy today.

And this is my biggest bugbear with classic album concerts. Not only does the very concept rip out any sense of surprise so integral to the joys of live music – one should feel excited when the first chords of Sloop John B kick in, not be counting down the playlist and planning toilet breaks during the instrumentals – but it also holds the music up to an impossible level of scrutiny.

And at this stage of his career, the last thing Wilson needs is scrutiny. At 74 years old, his vocals are simply no longer up to the job, oddly inconsistent, but at the worst moments – of which there were several – wilfully murdering his own work in a way which was painful to watch.

Neither the raft of backing singers, nor handing the higher notes to surviving bandmate Al Jardine’s son Matt – whose quintessential Beach Boys vocal tone suggests a life lived in his father’s shadow – could disguise the problem, but only magnified it.

“You Still Believe in Me, how’s that?” said Wilson pointedly, introducing the album’s second song – and it’s true. These quivering vocal disasters are winced at with the same embarrassed, loyal respect reserved for a befuddled elderly relative at a family gathering. Today, Wilson’s live career is kept firmly topped up by giddy levels of goodwill, embraced by a supportive, inherently nostalgic public happy to bask in the same space as a bona fide musical legend.

A warm fuzzy glow spread throughout the crowd from the first chords of opener California Girls, largely maintained through the opening salvo of singles I Get Around, Surfer Girl and Don’t Worry Baby, until the mood drooped into an unnecessary two-song showcase of Blondie Chaplin, the guitar-slinger associated with The Beach Boys in the early 1970s.

Next came the 12 songs of Pet Sounds which, although unfamiliar or unappreciated by notable corners of the audience, offered the evening its camera-phone moment in the timeless majesty of God Only Knows – once declared Paul McCartney’s favourite song.

After a short break, the 11-piece band returned for a spirited run through some of The Beach Boys’s greatest hits – Good Vibrations, Surfin’ USA, Help Me Rhonda, Fun, Fun, Fun, the latter two sung passably by Al Jardine. Inspiring much dancing in the aisles, it would take a true cynic not to smile at these timeless pop masterpieces, performed by two men who played such a role in creating them.

The evening closed, as it has for years with Wilson, with the touching 1988 solo track Love and Mercy. Then, after whizzing through 25 songs in 90 minutes – 12 less than he played in London and Paris a few days earlier – in a blink Wilson was gone. Down the stage steps and off to the next stop of this exhausting tour which, after a long winter break, will keep Wilson on the road until a month shy of his 75th birthday, next June. Visibly frail and with millions already in the bank, it can only be the magic of music which keeps this man going, repeating his past glories, night after night.

rgarratt@thenational.ae