21 October 1999
Hard Rock Cafe' Casino, Las Vegas, NV
It's great when you have a very good friend living in Las Vegas, who can show you around the area. In many ways, this fastest growing city in the U.S. can be thought of as one gigantic video game. In the 18 months since the last time I visited, several major casinos have risen from the sand of the desert, including one that required an investment of over $1 billion.
During a stroll along Las Vegas Boulevard, my friend and I dropped into the MGM Grand Hotel casino. Amidst a celebrity lookalike contest , I subtly pointed at a pedestrian and said, "Tom Jones". Seconds later, it occurred to my friend and I that Tom Jones himself was booked for a week's stay at the MGM. Almost injuring our necks, we turned around, and sure enough..... So, I can now say that I've seen Tom Jones in Vegas. And yes, he looks bigger on T.V.
This visit, my friend took me to the Hard Rock Cafe' Casino, in which, amongst dozens of guitars and other memorabilia, resides a designed-for-sound theatre called the Joint.
What can you say about Brian Wilson? Well, too much for one book. Realizing this, the organizers of this tour decided to begin the shows with something unique--a full half-hour video covering Brian's incredible career, beginning with pictures of him as a toddler and ending with clips of him today, trim and fit for the road at age 57. The flick showed various interviews of several talented musicians, including members of the "Wrecking Crew" (Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, and Glen Campbell), and other members of the Beach Boys. One clip showed Brian sitting at a piano with his late brother Carl and Beach Boy Alan Jardine--he once asked Alan to hold Brian's nose while Brian sang, to impersonate the Beach Boys' lead singer Mike Love. As wierd as it may be, you can't argue that Brian has, and has always had, an intimidating sense of humor. This film proved a totally appropriate and innovative way to begin a concert for the genius himself.
Brian walked out with his ten-piece band, sat down at his piano, and opened up with a relatively obscure tune (but one of my very favorites), "The Little Girl I Once Knew", a 1965 song that distinctly defined the impending complex musical direction Brian would end up taking over the following two years, which would ultimately produce Pet Sounds and Smile (unreleased).
Brian then broke into "Sloop John B", and subsequently dove into the more popular material from his 38-years-and-still-going-strong songwriting career. His introduction to "In My Room" showed the innocent and frighteningly honest side of his personality, commenting that he worked on the song at home with his brothers Carl and Dennis--"They're dead now, but, but, here--here's the song." He introduced "Surfer Girl" by saying that it was really the first song he wrote all by himself. Next came his recent collaboration with Jimmy Buffet, "South American".
During the first few songs, my friend and I noticed that Brian seemed to be staring directly at us continuously--my friend then wisely noticed a teleprompter, which Brian made exclusive use of throughout the show--hey, the man has composed literally hundreds of songs over his career, some of which his memory has probably lost in part because of his use of LSD in the 1960s.
What seemed a little strange was that, though Brian's hands were on his Yamaha piano for 95 % of the evening, camera eye views (as projected on two big screens) revealed that Brian was, in fact, not playing a single note the entire evening. Rather, his left and right hands moved up and down in alternating fashion, much like a cat making himself comfortable on a security blanket. It's a true miracle, for many reasons, that Brian is even out on the road--stage fright alone has prevented him from touring as a solo artist for many years. I suppose that sitting behind a piano, as he has most every day since junior high school, makes him feel comfortable enough to sing in front of an audience.
Always one to cut to the chase, typically at the end of a song, Brian would say, "Thank you SO MUCH!!! Ooooookay, the next song....." He did an admirable job of covering his immense catalog, which included surfer hits like "Surfin' U.S.A.", "Fun Fun Fun", "I Get Around", and a beautiful "All Summer Long".
The mastermind of the Beach Boys also performed "Don't Worry Baby", as well as the Ronnie Spector-vocaled song that inspired it, "Be My Baby".
B.W. placed a lot of emphasis on what many regard as the peak period of his musical career, during which Brian competed with the likes of Phil Spector and Paul McCartney in terms of complex melodic songwriting, harmonic arrangments, and wall-of-sound-like production. Songs he picked out of this era included, "California Girls", "Wouldn't It Be Nice" (sung in the key of D instead of F), his only top 40 hit "Caroline, No", and, of course, "Good Vibrations".
Largely responsible for the conveyance of the good vibes this evening was guitarist/singer Jeff Foskett, who very capably handled the task of covering the high vocal parts that, because of years of cigarettes, Brian is no longer able to handle himself. The ten piece band, as a whole, which included a Florida-based band named the Wondermints, demonstrated high competence overall.
Brian completely skipped his Smile era this evening--in one recent interview, he called the compositions from that never-released album, "Inappropriate music." Instead, he proceeded to introduce and perform what he called the all-time favorite composition of his, "Darlin'", as well as "Do It Again".
After a short intermission, Brian let his ten-piece band perform a couple of instrumentals off of Pet Sounds, the Burt Bacharach-inspired "Let's Go Away For A While", and the album's title track. During these two performances, Brian simply turned around on his piano bench, folded his arms, and listened like the competent producer/arranger/director he is.
After performing his 1998 adult contemporary hit, "Your Imagination", Brian introduced what was, by far, the most compelling track of the evening, his tribute to his late brother Carl, "Lay Down Burden". And, he followed by introducing the song on which Carl performed one of his finest studio vocals, "God Only Knows". Brian said it was the only song in popular music at the time that had the word "God" in it. Okay.
After encores of "Help Me Rhonda", and "Barbara Ann", he left the audience with a very beautiful "Love And Mercy".
On stage, Brian Wilson is as humble and reserved as someone who's never had any artistic success, despite the quantity of standing ovations--after nearly every song. Sometimes people need continuous, repeated reminders of how great they are just to keep their confidence buoyant. Were it not for the fact that he's one of the five or so most successful songwriters of the Rock and Roll era, God Only Knows when we would have seen him tour again. For the record, Brian, you ARE, by popular opinion, a genius.
[****] - Steven T.
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