The former Beach Boy's show was more about the quality of the performance than spontanaeity at the Saenger Theatre. 

brian wilson by steph catsoulis for my spilt milk
Brian Wilson at the Saenger, by Steph Catsoulis

Brian Wilson’s appearances in New Orleans didn’t promise a lot before he played the Saenger on the Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour Wednesday night. The narrative when he played Jazz Fest in 2005 was that Wilson wasn’t as damaged as he used to be, and that often seemed true enough. The show was impressive, but more because of the chops his band brought to the table than anything he robotically sang. The excitement came more from the fact that he performed at all rather than how well he performed. When The Beach Boys reunited with Mike Love at Jazz Fest in 2012, Wilson’s voice was stronger and more able, but the tensions that would eventually cause the reunion tour to come apart seemed evident onstage as Wilson appeared sullen and reserved.

Going into Wednesday’s show, I wondered if his return to touring in 2005 and a consistent, supportive band had helped Wilson become a more reliable, secure presence onstage. Time, drugs, and mental issues have taken an irreversible toll, and he can’t help but look like a confused grandfather much of the time, but maybe he’s not as fragile as the legend suggests. Wilson proved that theory at least partially right Wednesday as his performance at the Saenger was easily his strongest in New Orleans. It helped that he rearranged the vocals to suit his strengths and limitations. During the encore, Beach Boy Al Jardine sang lead on many of the surf songs, and Jardine’s son Matthew flawlessly handled the parts Wilson once sang in his upper register. When Wilson stayed in his lane, he was not only effect but expressive, with growls and burrs in his voice.  

That musicality is important because it’s what Brian Wilson sells live. He’s never been a dynamic performer, so nobody came at the Saenger to see him put on a show. In fact, his between song patter revealed some of his limitations. He tried to engage the audience a couple of times as if we were all 17, asking a theater full of adults who could shout louder, the men or the women. He also inexplicably led the crowd in the singing of “Row Row Row Your Boat,” and during the performance of Pet Sounds, he introduced the tiki fantasias “Let’s Go Away for Awhile” and “Pet Sounds” and songs without words or any singing while everybody in the audience thought as one, You mean “instrumentals”?

Instead, his show is about hearing Wilson’s music the way he imagined it, down to the smallest sonic details. The 11-man band at times included three guitars, and while the effect of the three wasn’t obvious, you intuitively knew that each added a texture that Wilson considered significant. Similarly, the show offers a chance to hear the songs that Wilson values in The Beach Boys’ catalog. He plays the hits and on this tour, the 50 year-old Pet Sounds, as well some less obvious choices as “The Night Was So Young” from The Beach Boys Love You, the title track from Wild Honey, much of Holland’s “California Saga,” and “Let Him Run Wild” from 1965’s Summer Days (and Summer Nights). Wilson remembered his brother Carl by performing his gorgeous “Feel Flows” from Surf’s Up with a lead vocal by Blondie Chaplin.

Chaplin’s performance was the one wild card on the show. He sang and played more loosely than anyone else onstage, and his easy to enjoy how in the moment he was while “Sail On Sailor,” which he also performed when The Beach Boys recorded it for Holland. He sang it while playing a very loud, guitar that imposed itself on the song. Throughout the night, he walked onstage and off, playing a tambourine theatrically for moments at a time before walking off again. During a lengthy encore that included “Good Vibrations,” a number of surf hits, and “Love and Mercy,” Chaplin paced the stage as if he couldn’t wait for the show to be over. 

To be fair, it wasn’t clear that Wilson has much left in the tank either by the end of the show. Wilson sequenced the first half of the show so that he got regular breaks, but Pet Sounds asked a lot of him with few breaks. Perhaps for the reason, Wilson sing/spoke a number of songs including “That’s Not Me” and “You Still Believe in Me.” He seemingly couldn’t hold notes and rarely did for the remainder of the show, but what he could do—combined with the band’s faithful recreation of the music—was enough for the material to work its magic. Pet Sounds is one of the best reflections of the inner life of teenaged boy, and even though the youngest person on the stage was likely 15 or more years out of his teens, the album’s anxieties still manifested themselves in all their pimply glory. Only “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” found new meaning in its more mature incarnation as the song’s initial rationalization rang truer coming from an older man selling melodic pop in an EDM world. 

Wilson began and ended the night with The Beach Boys’ pre-Pet Sounds hits, and the crowd obviously approved of that frame, dancing for much of the encore. For me, that reception illustrated one the challenges the band and Wilson always had to deal with as its most loved material lacks the emotional heft of the songs Brian seemed to care about most. As well played as they were, the string of “Help Me Rhonda,” “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ USA” and “Fun Fun Fun” seemed slight, and with Wilson letting Jardine carry much of that, the show really ended when Wilson exited the stage before the end of “Caroline No.”