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Brian Wilson Takes ‘Pet Sounds’ on Tour: Embracing an Unexpected Career as a Live Artist

Brian Wilson will perform the landmark Pet Sounds album in its entirety on tour this year to mark the 50th anniversary of this hugely influential Beach Boys album, the latest -- and busiest -- run…

Brian Wilson will perform the landmark Pet Sounds album in its entirety on tour this year to mark the 50th anniversary of this hugely influential Beach Boys album, the latest — and busiest — run for an artist who has built an unexpected career as a touring artist outside his Beach Boys origins.

Ironically, the Pet Sounds tour celebrates an album that, to a large degree, owes its success — if not very existence — to Wilson’s disdain for touring at the time it was recording, which allowed him to devote all his creative energy to recording what is largely regarded as one of the greatest pop/rock albums of all time.

While a distaste for road work back in the day may have led to the creation of an album that holds up incredibly well 50 years later, Wilson’s feelings about touring have changed dramatically. “I want to tour,” Wilson tells Billboard.

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The 2016 tour will be the first time Pet Sounds will be played in its entirety on stage in 17 years. When Pet Sounds was released in 1966, “We didn’t play it on stage,” Wilson says, describing the record as, “an album that started out with ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ and just went from there.”

The Pet Sounds tour is the latest installment for a latter day touring career that few, including Wilson himself, would have envisioned. Wilson is touring as much as he has in the past 20 years, averaging over 50 dates and year and topping 70 this year. “No, I never thought I would [tour so much],” he muses, “but I do anyway. I’ll be touring a little bit every year.”

In the 50 years following Pet Sounds’ release, Wilson has evolved from reclusive studio genius to a credible, bankable touring musician whose box office clout and creative credibility equals or exceeds his former band in many markets around the world. On Pet Sounds, Wilson and his touring band will be joined by former bandmates Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin when the tour begins later this month. Joining Wilson, Jardine and Chaplin will be such musicians as Paul Von Mertens, Darian Sahanaja, Scott Bennett, Nick Walusko, Probyn Gregory, Nelson Bragg, Matt Jardine, Bob Lizik, Mike D’amico, Gary Griffin and Billy Hinsche.

Wilson describes his touring band as “all great musicians.” And even though Pet Sounds as an album is noteworthy for its studio wizardry, Wilson says it adapts well to the concert stage. “I did it [live] 17 years ago,” he says, “and we’ve gotten better over the years.”

Among Wilson’s favorite songs to perform live, he says, are “California Girls” and “Good Vibrations,” the latter a masterpiece released as a standalone single the same year as Pet Sounds. (It later appeared on 1967’s Smiley Smile.)

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The tour, booked by Bruce Solar, Andy Somers and Steve Martin from Agency for the Performing Arts (APA) in North America and Neil Warnock from United Talent Agency internationally, begins March 26 at the Auckland (New Zealand) Civic Center. After a half-dozen dates in Australia, New Zealand and Japan, Wilson will play theaters, civic centers, festivals and performing arts centers in North American, the U.K./Europe, Spain and Israel, through the fall, with another leg being put together for Q1 next year due to demand. Not only can fans expect Pet Sounds to be performed beginning to end, Wilson will also perform songs spanning his 54-year career with The Beach Boys and as a solo artist.

“He’s in this really creative space, he’s with people that he really likes, he loves this band, he loves being out with Al and Blondie, I just think it’s a really comfortable situation for him,” says Solar. “And the response has been so good that that just makes you want to work more.”

Originally released on May 16, 1966, Pet Sounds is widely considered one of the most groundbreaking and influential pop albums of all time. The making of the album and the challenges surrounding Wilson’s life and career with the Beach Boys, was one of the central themes of last year’s critically-acclaimed feature film, Love & Mercy. History has it that Wilson had increasingly removed himself from the Beach Boys touring in 1964-’65 and then effectively “resigned” from road work to record what became Pet Sounds through the summer of 1965 through the spring of ’66. Pet Sounds was released on May 16 of 1966.

(Capitol/UMe’s Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary Edition will be released in June, including a 4CD/Blu-ray Audio collectors edition presented in a hardbound book, featuring the remastered original album in stereo and mono, plus new hi res instrumental and 5.1 surround mixes, as well as session outtakes, alternate mixes, previously unreleased live recordings and hi res stereo and mono mixes; a 2CD and digital deluxe edition pairing the remastered album in stereo and mono with highlights from the collectors edition’s additional tracks; a remastered, 180-gram LP editions of the album in mono and stereo with faithfully replicated original artwork.)

After reuniting with his former bandmates in 2012 for the Beach Boys 50th Anniversary tour, Wilson — the Beach Boy who once eschewed touring — will play more dates in 2016 than he ever has as a solo artist, according to Solar at APA.

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Demand from both audiences and talent buyers is increasing as more people make the connection between Wilson and the Beach Boys material that has become part of the Great American Songbook. Solar says Love & Mercy has drawn particular attention to both Wilson and Pet Sounds. “There’s more of an awareness of Brian and what Brian meant, than there ever was before,” says Solar. While Solar would not go so far as to say that Wilson has more value as a stand-alone date [as opposed to an ancillary attraction at a fair, festival, or other event] than his former group, clearly Wilson’s shows are positioned as an “evening with” event, with Wilson as the only attraction. “Obviously [the Beach Boys] was a great group and a great bunch of people within a group,” Solar says, “but [audiences] are starting to separate Brian out, for sure.”

Rather than a nostalgia act, Wilson is marketed “in a contemporary light,” Solar says, adding that, “95 percent of what we do is [hard ticket].” Festivals that Wilson does play skew younger than baby boomers, including main stage slots at the Levitation festival in Austin, Texas (April 30), the Primavera festivals in Barcelona and Porto, Spain, (June 4 and 10, respectively), Brooklyn’s Northside Festival (June 12) and a headlining performance at Pitchfork in Chicago (July 16). “There are a lot of new faces out there [in the audience],” Solar says, “and I think that’s been really energizing for Brian.”

Wilson would agree. “I feed off [the audience’s] energy,” he says, “and they feed off of mine, so we all hook together.”

To maintain Wilson’s status as a fresh, viable touring attraction, the agents and manager Jean Sievers at CO5 Management and co-manager/wife Melinda Wilson have been creative in coming up with new angles and packages for Wilson, especially since the wildly successful Beach Boys 50th Anniversary tour in 2012. Wilson toured with legendary guitarist Jeff Beck in 2013 (“it was pretty amazing when Jeff would come out and they’d do ‘Surf’s Up’ together,” Solar says) and with Rodriguez on last year’s No Pier Pressure tour.

So with the golden anniversary of Pet Sounds on the horizon, plus the attention from Love & Mercy, “it just seemed like the right time to do a Pet Sounds tour,” says Solar. “The few promoters we checked with in the beginning were very enthusiastic, we all felt like, ‘they’re into this.’ It’s one of their favorite records, too, they want to hear it.”

In working with talent buyers, the agents, “went with people that were really enthusiastic but also the right situation in the market,” Solar says. “Sometimes the Live Nation room is better than the PAC [performing arts center] and sometimes the PAC is better than the Live Nation room, sometimes the AEG room is better. We tried to put it in the best listening situation possible. We’re not going to be 100% right, we never are as an agent, but I think we’re batting pretty good here.”

When the early dates on the tour go up and sell quickly, “it obviously makes your job as an agent a little bit easier,” Solar admits. “I remember one date in particular, where we sold the date to the promoter and he was like, ‘I’m going to lose all this money, I’m only doing this date because it’s my favorite record of all time,’ and his date sold out in six minutes.”

Promoter Jodi Goodman, president of Live Nation Northern California, says Wilson consistently moves about 2,000 tickets in his market, but has seen the “strongest reaction to date” for the Pet Sounds tour. “This year, our shows at The Masonic blew out one and then two [shows], 2,300 tickets each show,” Goodman says, “and I would tell you we could have gone for another. We have many ticket buyers who are going to see his show for the first time. There is a more mixed demo of excitement around these shows, more like an urgency to see it.”

Promoter Adam Zacks, senior director of programming and producer at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, where the Pet Sounds tour will stop Oct. 8, says the market is “particularly strong” for Wilson. “He sold out the Symphony Hall on the last tour and sold out the Paramount for the Pet Sounds tour this coming fall,” he says. “It sold out quickly, less than a week.”

New dates have been added since the initial route was announced, including a “hometown” show in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Bowl, as well as shows in Atlanta, Sacramento, California, Salt Lake City and several dates throughout Florida; second nights have been added for Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, as well as doubles in San Francisco and Burlington, Vermont, and a third sold-out night at London’s Palladium for May. In fact, at this point demand on a worldwide basis exceeds supply.

“For this fall we turned down more dates than we took almost,” Solar says. “We’re going to add another leg in the spring because there’s so much demand. We played a lot of secondary/tertiary markets that he’s played rarely, if at all, and those did very, very well. I think it all goes back to the movie and touring on an iconic record that was depicted really well in that movie. I think a lot of people have seen [the film] now and want to see Brian.”

Current plans call for the 2016 leg of the Pet Sounds tour — 70 to 80 dates total — to wrap in early November, though Solar expects the tour could return to Europe early next year. Then, Wilson will likely run through Canada, then hit secondary and tertiary markets not yet played in the U.S. Solar doesn’t see interest peaking in the near future. “The stars have aligned really well on this one.”