Seeing any live entertainment following a tragedy feels strange. There’s a moment where you ask yourself if enjoying something while others reel from loss is even appropriate. So when Brian Wilson‘s start-to-finish performance of Pet Sounds as part of Brooklyn’s Northside Festival began Sunday night — less than 24 hours after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history (which took place in an entertainment venue, no less) — the crowd was understandably somber and, for a music festival, surprisingly sober.
Had it solely been a run-through of the Beach Boys‘ biggest, brightest hits, perhaps Wilson’s Sunday night set in McCarren Park wouldn’t have worked. But while Wilson did perform several sunny ’60s classics, the bulk of the performance was devoted to the intensely personal, lovely and melancholy Pet Sounds, which he performed alongside founding Beach Boy Al Jardine. And somehow, it felt right.
While Wilson’s voice can barely achieve the crystal clarity of 1966 in 2016, there’s no replacing the uncanny experience of seeing a genius deliver his musical masterpiece in person, regardless of whether the voice has started to slip. To be fair, Wilson’s voice occasionally did sound magnificent — but it was a rockier delivery than what you hear at a Paul McCartney show in 2016 (though arguably closer to the original studio version than what you’re ever likely to hear from the willfully impenetrable Dylan these days).
For someone with a reputation as a recluse, Wilson reveled in the crowd’s energy, joking around from behind his big white piano while sharing tidbits of background information on many of the songs before performing them. Following Pet Sounds, he fondly recalled the experience of Jardine (standing next to him) introducing him to the Regents‘ “Barbara Ann” as a teenager (the Beach Boys’ cover would become the bigger hit).
Pet Sounds is the last album Wilson completed before his mental-health troubles intensified to a breaking point. In that sense, Pet Sounds can be seen as the music he made to successfully soothe his aching psyche. That’s speculative, of course — but certainly for devotees, his chamber-pop masterwork fulfills that role.
So on a chilly Sunday night in New York City, when it seemed strange to even attempt fun, Pet Sounds once again served as a miraculously spiritual ointment for those confused and lost. “I Know There’s an Answer,” Wilson sang in 1966 — and though he doesn’t have the answers to all our questions, the best of his output certainly helps make life easier for many.
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