‘S Marvellous: Brian Wilson at the Royal Festival Hall September 18th 2011

What happens when the ultimate West Coast musician takes on the ultimate East Coast sound? You get a lot more xylophones in Gershwin.

(God Only Knows performed at the Royal Festival Hall in 2002)

Brian Wilson says he did an album of Gershwin at the suggestion of the Gershwin family. There are two numbers that are astoundingly good  — They’ll Never Take That Away From Me  — turned into a drum pounding surf number- and I Got Rhythm — transmuted into pure rock n’ roll. Those are the two tracks I’d recommend downloading onto your MP3 player.

But the rest of the album, even with good orchestration, plenty of xylophones, and a string quintet, played out to fill the 40 min first half, veered too often towards easy listening — too Brian Wilson Pops/ jazz flute for me. Still the whole exercise revealed a mind still happiest when noodling around with sounds on a lavish scale.

Surrounded by a very strong 14 piece band, and help on hand when he moved from keyboard to guitar,Wilson, clearly mentally fragile, seems to have constructed a good sized comfort zone around him.

God only knows there’s no place more depressing than London on a miserable Sunday night, but in a baby boomer packed audience, on a rainy night in austerity Britain, where most of the men bopping with enthusiasm, looked like Vince Cable, but far far happier, it was the generous 1 hr and 40 min second half — back to back greatest hits of the Beach Boys, with a little Chuck Berry for good measure — which  lifted spirits much as the Festival of Britain must have done here 50 years ago. If you’ve never seen a percussionist doing Pete Townsend style windmilling on a xylophone in the climax to Good Vibrations, then, here was your chance.

Some of us had come to see a legend we’d been born too late to catch in his prime. Many more were here to remember their own prime.The early surf hits proved remarkably durable and danceable. Younger singers did an impressive job on the vocals on many.Wilson’s voice, clearly a damaged one, was sometimes difficult to listen to on the Gershwin. But when he sang “God Only Knows”  (“The best song I ever wrote” he acknowledged to the audience) his fallen voice made you hear the echo of his angelic youthful sound on Pet Sounds. If I were older I’d say I was just crying for my lost youth. As it was I felt I was crying for his, too.

 

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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