Brian Wilson fans had several reasons to breathe a sigh of relief after the hometown performance the Beach Boys’ creative leader delivered Thursday at the Greek Theatre.
First and foremost, Wilson was in solid voice and mood after giving fans reason for concern in June when he called off a string of shows, saying he was feeling “mentally insecure” following the third in a series of surgeries on his back.
“I started feeling strange and it’s been pretty scary for a while,” he said in a statement at that time. “I was not feeling like myself.”
Was it a passing affliction, or might he be sinking back into the psychological abyss in which he’d lived for much of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s?
By the end of July, however, Wilson said he was “100% better” and ready to get back on the road. Tragically, last month, on the first day of a new round of shows, longtime Brian Wilson Band guitarist and singer Nick Walusko died in his sleep at age 59.
Walsuko, along with keyboardist and singer Darian Sahanaja, his bandmate in the L.A.-based pop group the Wondermints, had been centrally involved in Wilson’s 21st century return to the recording studio and concert stage. Wilson called Walusko, a.k.a. Nicky Wonder, “my favorite guitar player ever” in a statement acknowledging the loss, and vowed to move forward as a tribute to him.
Thursday’s performance was part of a new tour dubbed “Something Great from ’68,” in which Wilson and his bandmates dig deeply into the Beach Boys’ 1968 album “Friends,” which he has often cited as his favorite among the group’s canon (while naming their 1966 pop masterpiece “Pet Sounds” as the band’s best).
Wilson shared the bill with England’s the Zombies, who devote a major chunk of their hour on stage to playing their 1968 proto-prog-rock album “Odessey and Oracle” from beginning to end, rendered precisely as it was recorded.
Having performed the Beach Boys’ 1966 pop masterpiece “Pet Sounds” in its entirety live on several tours in the last decade and a half, as well as the long-shelved, belatedly completed follow-up “Smile,” Wilson and the band have smartly chosen to plumb other musical gems from his extensive catalog rather than simply churning out the same cornerstone hits from among the band’s two dozen Top 20 hit singles.
Wilson, at 77, sang strongly in most of the songs he led, projecting an air of satisfaction in being on stage again, yet shifting in his seat periodically as though it was difficult to find a comfortable position.
He shared the spotlight generously, handing lead vocals off to fellow founding member, guitarist-singer Al Jardine, on several songs, as well a few key numbers to Jardine’s son, Matt, who handles the stratospheric high notes Wilson once sang. Sahanajah also took lead vocals on “Darlin’” and “I Can Hear Music,” nailing songs originally sung by Carl Wilson, who died in 1998.
The joy of a Brian Wilson Band show is hearing his still-innovative and richly complex vocal and instrumental arrangements delivered as he created them.
All the musical colors are intact, whether bass harmonica, baritone saxophone or bass flute played by musical director Paul von Mertens, trumpet, French horn, modified Theremin, steel guitar or banjo handled by multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory, a phalanx of guitars wielded by Al Jardine and Ron Bonfiglio (taking over many of Walusko’s parts) or the wealth of percussive effects served up by drummer Mike D’Amico and percussionist Jim Laspesa.
Then there are the vocal harmonies, full-on chorale-like sections incorporating as many as eight voices at a time, with contrapuntal lines and distinctive harmony choices that have long been the hallmarks of his sound.
Thursday’s performance included a string of guest appearances, first from Zombies leaders Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone, who sat in with Wilson on a ragged but earnest reading of “God Only Knows.” She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward also quietly came on stage at one point, adding background vocals to “Long Promised Road,” one of several songs from another album highlighted Thursday, “Surf’s Up” from 1971.
Finally, English pop-punk singer Billy Idol trotted out near the end and put a sneer on “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” Wilson cracked a smile as Idol growled into his microphone, and appeared genuinely pleased with the enthusiastic response from the capacity crowd when he offered up “Good Vibrations.”
For the grand finale, he gathered around all the musicians for a piano-and-voices-only rendition of his introspective early hit “In My Room,” rendered sweetly in 6,200-part harmony.