Few musicians have had as massive an impact on popular music in the last century as Brian Wilson. With his band The Beach Boys, he helped to define the sound of American music in the 1960s, and influenced generations to come. The story goes that when Pet Sounds, the band’s eleventh album, was released in 1966, Capitol Records didn’t know quite what to make of it, and even attempted to bury it behind a Best of the Beach Boys compilation released at nearly the same time. Little did they realize at the time that the album – which pre-dated the album it is most often compared to, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by a year – would go on to be considered one of the most influential records of all time.
In 2016, Wilson and his band, including former Beach Boy Al Jardine, embarked on a tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of the album. That multi-year tour has since crossed the world several times over, and the band is now on what it is calling the “final” performances around the album (don’t worry just yet if you haven’t gotten to see it, though – shows are already booked into the middle of next year). On Monday, the tour stopped at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, for a special performance which included a small orchestral section of string and horn players.
The band warmed the audience and themselves up with a selection of The Beach Boys’ early hits, including classics such as “California Girls,” “I Get Around,” “Shut Down,” and “Little Deuce Coupe.” These songs have become so ingrained in the cultural milieu that it would likely be hard to find someone who couldn’t sing along, but the group made them sound as fresh as ever. From there, they wandered briefly into the post-Pet Sounds era, with a portion of the “California Saga” from 1973’s Holland and “Darlin'” from 1967’s Wild Honey. Always a highlight of the Brian Wilson shows of recent years, singer and guitarist Blondie Chaplin (a member of The Beach Boys from 1972 to 1973) came on stage to perform soaring versions of “Feel Flows” (from 1971’s Surf’s Up) and “Sail On, Sailor” (also from Holland).
But if the eleven-song intro wasn’t enough, it was only then finally time for the main event – a start-to-finish run through all thirteen tracks of Pet Sounds. From the opening notes of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” with its deceptive harmonies that make it sound more like a classic Beach Boys song than any other part of the album, Wilson’s current group recreated the intricate record nearly flawlessly live on stage. Wilson, who amongst all of the other singers had seemed more like a presence on the stage during some of the earlier parts of the set, took a strong lead on the vocals on a number of tracks, including “That’s Not Me” and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder).” The orchestra helped to add texture to the music, without overwhelming the band.
Then, all too soon, it was over, as the ending sound collage of “Caroline, No” filled the speakers.
But the show wasn’t quite over yet. It was at this point that the band would have normally left the stage and returned for an encore, but for this time at least, they chose to stay on. They certainly hadn’t run out of hits to play, and they ran through five more – “Good Vibrations,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” before closing out the night with the one Brian Wilson solo song of the show, “Love and Mercy” (from his 1988 solo debut of the same name).
A legendary performer, doing his most legendary album (at least that was actually released at the time it was recorded, though its follow-up Smile certainly wins in the mythology surrounding it) in full isn’t something you get to see every day. If you haven’t caught one of the Pet Sounds shows yet, make sure to catch one of these final performances before the tour sails off into the sunset.
Brian Wilson setlist California Girls
Dance, Dance, Dance
I Get Around
Little Deuce Coupe
California Saga: California
Don’t Worry Baby
Sail On, Sailor
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
You Still Believe In Me
That’s Not Me
Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)
I’m Waiting For the Day
Let’s Go Away For Awhile
Sloop John B
God Only Knows
I Know There’s An Answer
I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times
Help Me Rhonda
Fun, Fun, Fun
Love and Mercy