Brian Wilson / Sept. 11, 2007 / London (Royal Festival Hall)
Brian Wilson's visits to London's South Bank have become so frequent that a new concert engagement by the musical titan is almost like an annual treat for his British faithful. Back we come, time afteBrian Wilson's visits to London's South Bank have become so frequent that a new concert engagement by the musical titan is almost like an annual treat for his British faithful. Back we come, time after time, to witness one of the great improbable phenomena in all of modern culture: the performing triumph of a supposed casualty who once couldn't even get out of bed.
At the august venue that he has come to think of as a "second home," this new run of six shows opened a wider British tour. This time, the promise was not just a further rummage through his back catalog, which Wilson and his astonishing band had already explored at ever-greater length, but the unveiling of his new "song cycle" "That Lucky Old Sun (A Narrative)," as well as a Beatles cover.
From the first note, they were true to their word and to Wilson's peerless legacy. Brian took up his customary position stage front, in a casual, hooped top, track suit pants and trainers, sheltered behind a keyboard that he rarely even touches. The band, brilliant multi-instrumentalists and soloists one and all, gave him their customary assurance, both physically and musically. Thus they took to the waves with "Salt Lake City," a collectors-only Beach Boy memory from 1965's "Summer Days (And Summer Nights!)."
The first half of the show carried on surfing and hot-rodding through Brian's earlier years, stopping off at such innocent delights as "Dance Dance Dance," "Wendy," "Girl Don't Tell Me" and "Do You Wanna Dance." Here too were more grownup pieces such as "Sail on Sailor," "Do It Again" and the endlessly insightful "In My Room," to send the disciples into the halftime break in happy spirits.
The miracle of seeing Wilson as a live performer is easily enough to ward off any observations about his gauche stage manner, especially when one has observed how much more at ease he is compared to when this adventure began nearly a decade ago. Sure, he doesn't hit every note and often relies on the safety net of guitarist/vocalist Jeff Foskett, but the love and positivity that flows to and from the stage is more than compensatory -- it's revelatory.
Still, even after the adept completion of the "Smile" album three years ago, only the most optimistic Wilsonian would have expected to hear quite such a sophisticated new piece of songcraft as "That Lucky Old Sun." It's a monument to the Californian iconography that has informed Brian's life, and at times holds a mirror up to his soul in a startlingly personal way.
Its songs were punctuated by recorded narratives, written by his great collaborator Van Dyke Parks, and by projected visuals of Los Angelean life and the Wilsons as young men. Sweet pop confections "Good Kind of Love" and "Forever You'll Be My Surfer Girl" were followed by the beautiful "Midnight's Another Day," co-written with band member Scott Bennett, whose lyrics capture the desperation of Brian's darkest days and his return to real life: "Lost my way, the sun grew dim / Stepped over grace, and stood in sin / Took the dive, but couldn't swim / Lost in the dark, no shades of gray /Until I found midnight's another day."
It was hard to believe that a new Wilson composition could again capture the tangible poignancy of his great works. Speaking of which, there was still time to put several more nickels in this extraordinary human jukebox as the crowd rocked jubilantly to "Fun Fun Fun," "Help Me Rhonda" and more.