Brian Wilson – Chicago – The Chicago Theater, IL – 2000-07-21

Brian Wilson
Where: Chicago – The Chicago Theater, IL.

When: 2000-07-21

I clearly have the world’s greatest girlfriend: As a surprise gift, she bought us ninth-row tickets to see Brian Wilson perform Pet Sounds in its entirety with a full orchestra. I hadn’t planned on going fearing the prohibitive cost, but she surprised me and took care of everything, and there I was. Now that I’m no longer in school, this is probably the most culture I’m likely to get in a long time, so I ate the whole thing up.

This, much like the plays and operas that also frequent the Chicago Theatre, was divided into four parts. True to Chicago Theatre style, there were a lot of folks in suits, which made things a little antiseptic (no one lit up any doobies.) The first “act” was an orchestral arrangement of 20-some Beach Boys songs. It was nice to hear a full orchestra sound, but I’m not convinced that this was a good arrangement. The whole thing had Hal Leonard traces, and although it was enjoyable, it wasn’t mind blowing. It did serve to build anticipation for when Wilson would take the stage.

For the next part, the orchestra left, and Brian Wilson and a 10-piece band arrived in front of the orchestra section. The band had a couple of guitar players, a bassist, a drummer, and several others for backup vocals / keyboards / percussion to fill out the sound. This part of the set was dedicated to doing some of Wilson’s solo work, a few low-key Beach Boys numbers, and a Phil Spector cover. The band itself had a thick sound, and they had clearly mastered all of Wilson’s selections for the night. One guitarist in particular had an amazing voice that surpassed even Wilson’s. So whenever Wilson missed a cue or had intonation problems, it was corrected quickly. This set served as a nice warm-up for the real centerpiece, the “Pet Sounds” performance, which was to happen after the intermission. The intensity continued to build, which doesn’t tend to happen at the average rock show.

When Wilson hit the stage again and the opening notes of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” rang out, all of my critical objectivity disappeared. I felt like I was witnessing something special, something once in a lifetime. The band was practically flawless in their rendering of the album, and the orchestra’s sound perfectly complimented the music, which I thought couldn’t get any better than the way it was recorded, in a way I could never describe. You truly did have to be there. Wilson did a good job of hitting those high notes, but even when he missed, my head blocked him out and replaced his voice with the perfect album versions. It is easy to see why the Beatles felt the need to answer this album with Sgt. Pepper: He had accomplished what he had set out to do, which was to surpass Rubber Soul. I think they surpassed Sgt. Pepper. America 1, Brits 0! I don’t know when the last time you were brought to tears by music, but this did it for me. “God Only Knows” was a personal highlight. I was moved, and I’ll never forget it. Hearing this made me realize why I am a music fan in the first place.

The last act was a bit of a let down compared to how great the “Pet Sounds” album was. Brian ran through many old Beach Boys classics such as “I Get Around” and “Surfin’ USA.” I was half expecting John Stamos to hit the stage. Believe it or not, the crowd seemed to be disappointed by this as well, showing that I had underestimated most of the older audience. Luckily, I was still in musical nirvana from the third act, so the rest of the show was enjoyable nonetheless.

Throughout this whole show, I couldn’t help but think of the legend of Brian Wilson: How he was afraid to play live for most of the Beach Boy’s career, his nervous breakdown, his headlong fall into drugs, and his bizarre interviews. I wondered what had changed, what made Brian Wilson decide he was finally healthy enough to take to the stage again. “His Wierdness” didn’t disappoint: He stared into teleprompters the whole show, even during no-brainers like “Barbra Ann.” He sat at a keyboard most of the show, and when he decided to emote, he awkwardly raised his hands in the air, looking more like a teacher leading 1st graders in a sing-along than a rock and roll icon. And his between-song banter, when it wasn’t written on the teleprompter, was the nervous rambling of someone who had been to the edge and barely lived to tell about it, almost as if he had survived a stroke. I believe that Wilson would not have even been on the stage were it not for the mental security the teleprompters provided. All of those things aside, Wilson did his best to perform the difficult melodies he had written, and for the most part he delivered, save a few sour notes. And after hearing “Pet Sounds,” his gift to the beauty and love in this world, performed live, I say Brian Wilson can do whatever the fuck he wants to do.