On the Beat

Review: Brian Wilson is still a thrill

Brian Wilson in concert at Durham, NC's Carolina Theater Thursday night, Nov. 19, 2015.
Brian Wilson in concert at Durham, NC's Carolina Theater Thursday night, Nov. 19, 2015. ssharpe@newsobserver.com

About two-thirds of the way through Brian Wilson’s Thursday night show at the Carolina Theatre, Wilson declared his backup ensemble to be “the greatest band in the history of the world.” Sure, it was an exaggeration – but not much of one.

Seeing the 73-year-old Beach Boys mastermind in concert these days is sort of like watching the best tribute band ever, in part because key members of the real band are sitting in. In this case it was Wilson as well as his Beach Boys co-founder Al Jardine, with 1970s-vintage member Blondie Chaplin in for a few songs, too. And while it’s true that the hired guns did most of the instrumental and vocal heavy lifting, they hit all the marks with unerring precision – and the old guys acquitted themselves well, too.

Clocking in at a generous 32 songs in just under two hours, the show covered all the biggest signature hits you’d want to hear, from “Heroes and Villains” to “Good Vibrations,” with the occasional choice obscurity like “Add Some Music to Your Day.” Maybe the best voice onstage belonged to Jardine’s son Matt, who nailed the falsetto parts in “Don’t Worry Baby.” And Chaplin was a hoot, projecting ample rock-star cool and looking like the late Lou Reed come back to life.

“We’re here to have fun,” Chaplin said. “Otherwise … it’s just another bus ride.”

As for Wilson, who has battled many well-publicized demons over the years, he projected a bittersweet, wounded poignance. Even as a septuagenarian, Wilson remains a man-child whose voice is the sound of earnest youth. A lot of his songs may be about sunny bright times and fast cars, but they still evoke more in the way of wistful shadows than bright light.

Wilson sat at his center-stage piano, sometimes not playing and looking on impassively. But he always seemed fully engaged, even when not singing and playing himself. It was sort of like spending a few hours in the presence of Mozart, adding flourishes to music he had conceived and composed.

Wilson’s bandmates seemed delighted to be a part of it all. In the midst of shredding a pretty impressive guitar solo on “Wild Honey,” Chaplin stopped long enough to give Wilson a quick hug at the piano. And drummer Mike D’Amico stood up and applauded Wilson at the end of “God Only Knows.”

Ultimately, the songs themselves were the real star of the show, tapping into an almost primal sense of music as gateway to a private emotional cosmos. It was awe-inspiring to take in the set list and marvel at how many inarguable icons of Western culture Wilson is responsible for. The closing pre-encore stretch was “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to “Sloop John B” to “God Only Knows” to “Good Vibrations,” and they were all still transportive from first note to last. Anyone there whose heart wasn’t breaking could not possibly have had one.

The show closed with Wilson offering up a prayerful “Love and Mercy,” with lyrics rewritten in apparent response to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris: “A lotta people out there gettin’ shot and it really scares me.” It was impossible not to think about what had happened less than a week earlier at a Paris concert hall very much like the Carolina Theatre.

Even in his twilight, Wilson can still induce chills.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

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