Live Music: Brian Wilson at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts

By Mike Finkelstein

On Saturday night Brian Wilson played a homecoming show of sorts at the Cerritos Center for the Performing  Arts, a gorgeous venue with a sound that is on a par with its architecture.  In the late ‘50s/early ‘60s Wilson and his brothers grew up in Hawthorne just a few miles west of Cerritos.  While living in Hawthorne, they developed the sound that would become recognizable worldwide as the Beach Boys.    Nearly 50 years later that sound is as iconic as it ever was.

Brian Wilson

Saturday’s program included upwards of 40 songs representing the development of his career.  All of them quite faithfully recreated the original recordings, essentially track for track and voice for voice.  To account for all of the many esoteric sonic nuances in Brian Wilson’s arrangements is no simple task. These days Wilson is touring with a stellar 9-piece ensemble, an enlarged version of the Wondermints from LA.  Starting with a consistent minimum of 5-part harmony, The Wondermints accounted for every necessary sound in the set with panache, from a stage crowded with instruments and players. Instruments such as glockenspiel, full size xylophone, baritone guitar, alto flute, baritone sax, accordion, theremin and chromatic harmonica were also referenced repeatedly.

The expanded version of the Wondermints included 2 guitars (Nicky Wonder and Jeff Foskett), bass (Brett Simons), a two man percussion section (Mike D’Amico and Nelson Bragg), 3 multi-instrumental keyboard players (Gary Griffin, Scott Bennett, and Darian Sahanaja) , and a multi-instrumental wind player (Paul Mertens).   The rhythm section positioned D’Amico on a trap kit and Bragg using his hands on assorted cymbals, tambourines, and shakers.   The verve and showmanship of these two was winsome, particularly as D’Amico would raise his arms ala Ringo and at times kept his fills super simple to stay true to Dennis Wilson’s original tracks.  Bragg would change instruments on the beat within the measure, often crashing a cymbal with a tambourine.   Showmanship definitely pleases most when it augments the music.

Brian Wilson and the band

Wilson’s  songwriting career began with songs rooted in living the innocence and the delights of being young in America during plentiful and relatively uncomplicated times.   Songs about surfing (“Surfin’ USA,”  “Catch A Wave”), chicks  (“Surfer Girl,” “Help Me Rhonda”), cars (“Little Deuce Coupe”), dancing (“Dance Dance Dance”), being true to your school, and fun, fun, fun abounded.   These ideas all translated into hit records for the Beach Boys and many of them made the evening’s set list.   The simple genius in how these songs transport a person right into the vision of waterside fun remains wonderfully obvious.   The keyboards evoke amusement park calliopes while glockenspiels summon up images of high school marching bands.    Upon listening, you can feel the sun and the breeze drying your shoulders as the sylphs glide by.

As Wilson matured so did his songs became more wistful and introspective, and he brought out these emotions musically with long, driving bass notes, church organ tones, lush five part harmonies and imaginative instrumentation.   Wilson never came across as trendy in his sound selections, often trying exotic instruments rather than gimmicky production.   He was after the richest, purest sound he could get and that endures.

“When I Grow Up To Be A Man,” “Good Vibrations,” “In My Room,” and “God Only Knows,” (a top shelf fave of Paul McCartney) were as poignant as ever on Saturday, particularly due to the beautifully authentic harmonies from the Wondermints.   There were enough voices on stage to form gorgeous jazzy vocal chords with flatted intervals that brought the depths of Beach Boys’ songs like “Heroes and Villains”  to life on stage.   The sense of motion in some of these signature vocal chords became Wilson’s calling card and it is remarkable to hear live.   It’s not often attempted in a rock ‘n roll format, because it just isn’t an easy thing to do.

To watch Brian Wilson fade into and out of clarity before our very eyes points out that time is fleeting and it is a real opportunity to see a talent like his live.   Onstage, the scene at times approached surreal.  In the middle of all the swirling layers of harmony and texture calmly sat the architect of it all.  Yet, much of the time he appeared a bit detached and unto himself, arms drooping, not always playing, missing an occasional word here and there, staring ahead.   It made you a little nervous for him.  He seemed a little out of it, or was he?  You just couldn’t be sure until, out of his glaze, he would cue up one subtle line in the song after another from the very spot onstage it needed to come from.

His trademark falsetto vocals were largely and invaluably handled by guitarist Foskett to his immediate right.   In fact, the Wondermints were there to guide the music along and to supply every detail that Wilson had originally conceived.  It was a testimonial and an act of love for the music on the their part.

The estate of George Gershwin (dead of a brain tumor way too early at age 39) contacted Brian Wilson a few years ago and asked him to interpret and work with some unfinished pieces of music.   The result was the compelling 2010 album Brian Wilson Re-imagines Gershwin.  On Saturday we were treated to the lush Wilson vocal treatment of several Gershwin standards including “Summertime,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” “They Can’t Take That From Me,” and a marvelous instrumental take on “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’,” complete with banjo and chromatic harmonica.   The band also dug down a bit for another tasty instrumental, the title track of “Pet Sounds,” which featured some great processed guitar work from guitarist Nicky Wonder.

All in all the two hour show maintained a brisk but certainly not rushed pace as Wilson’s songs took everyone in a predominantly older audience vividly back into their memory banks.   The purity of lyrics and sound morphing into something emotionally bigger than the sum of the parts is what endures about Brian Wilson’s music.   Those qualities are quite nearly perfect in their conception.   Songs like “God Only Knows,” “In My Room,”  and “Do It Again” really do have an appeal that can transcend generations…or so you would think.

To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

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