MusiCares Presents: A Tribute to Brian Wilson

cover artJust before the 2005 Grammy Awards a “star-studded gala took place in Los Angeles.” It was the MusiCares 2005 Person of the Year Awards, and the winner was Brian Wilson. Beach Boy extraordinaire, composer of the surf and hot-rod songs of my youth, and the “teenage symphony to God” that is Smile. But more than that, Wilson is one of those ’60s special cases, burned out on drugs, and work, and stress, like Syd Barrett and Skip Spence … but possibly more gifted than any of the others. He actually made a comeback, and is producing interesting music today.

Okay, admittedly, his contemporary music is not up to the standards of the early stuff. Gettin’ In Over My Head paled in comparison to his live version of the complete Smile project, both released in 2004. Nevertheless, Gettin’ In … has its charms. And in this DVD record of that night in February 2005, it’s the old stuff that shines. But it shines in a new and frankly … odd way. After all, who would expect to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers doing “I Get Around?” And it’s virtually note perfect, from the wonky guitar solo to the nasally backing vocals. Amazing! Then there’s the obscure “City Blues” by Richie Sambora. It’s obscure because it’s from that other 2004 CD. Eric Clapton was a guest on Brian’s version, Sambora plays it like … Richie Sambora. The guitar sizzles, the vocals less so.

Wilson’s touring band (once the Wondermints, now The Brian Wilson Band) provide able support throughout the show, backing up the guests. They know all the parts, the harmonies, the sound effects, everything. Jamie Cullum (with Fred Martin and the Levite Camp) turn “Sail On Sailor” into a gospel extravaganza. Barenaked Ladies do an acoustic rendition of their own “Brian Wilson” and tie it to Wilson’s own “Til I Die.” Just one acoustic guitar, standup bass, a simple accordion line and five voices. Very tasty. John Legend sings a soulful “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” backed again by The B.W. Band.

Then there’s the Backstreet Boys (“When I Grow Up To Be A Man”), Shelby Lynne (“Surfer Girl”), Michael McDonald and Billy Preston (“Don’t Worry Baby”), and a couple of guys who still call themselves Earth, Wind & Fire who rhapsodize on “Don’t Talk Put Your Head On My Shoulder.” All of them paying tribute to the original arrangements, yet putting a little original spin on the classic tune. Jeff Beck plays two fiery instrumental renditions of “Surf’s Up” and “Surfin’ USA” showing his usual chops, and yet giving a taste of just how he was influenced by Carl Wilson’s Stratocaster playing way back when.

Darlene Love shows off her new close cropped blonde hair, and her fine gospel voice on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Then the Brian Wilson Band offers the theme song from “Pet Sounds” (which they do in a virtual replica of the original) as an introduction to the last act of the night. Brian Wilson himself takes the front seat, behind a keyboard which he hardly touches. I saw the Beach Boys one time, circa 1977, when Brian was making an earlier comeback. They turned his microphone off through the whole show, except for a lead on “Sloop John B.” Here he sounds in pretty good voice, hitting almost all the notes on his four featured songs. But his eyes look shell-shocked. Happy to be there … happy to be anywhere. He raises his hand to point. Why? I’m not sure; it looks like a gesture someone coached him to add. “It’ll look good, Bri!”

It’s all a bit sad, and yet hopeful. The music is surprisingly good (produced by Phil Ramone). The video is clear and crisp. Bonus footage? Well, a few interviews about MusiCares (which provides a “safety net for music people in times of need) and some pictures. But there is an annoying announcer who, before each and every performer says exactly the same thing, in exactly the same tone, “Ladies and gentlemen … the Red Hot Chili Peppers … Shelby Lynne … Michael McDonald and Billy Preston … (until finally) … Brian Wilson.” And that’s what this whole show is all about. Brian Wilson, and forty years of amazing music. Check it out.

(Eagle Vision, 2007)

David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.

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