It Doesn't Matter What You Say About Brian Wilson, Because He's Brian Wilson

The Beach Boy performed 'Pet Sounds' in Chicago. Was it the greatest performance? Eh. But who cares—it's motherfucking Brian Wilson!
July 17, 2016, 4:12pm

All photos by Petya Shalamanova

Someone else finishes Brian Wilson’s vocal line, hitting the high notes he can’t. The transition is intended to sound seamless, although since we can see Wilson on the giant video screen next to the stage, we know he’s just trailed off and someone else picked up the falsetto. It’s part of the show. Wilson looks vacantly out over the crowd, a look that never changes throughout the hour-long set. It’s only one song into the Pitchfork Music Festival performance of Pet Sounds, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” one of the best pop songs ever, and things already feel deflated.

Reading tweets and overhearing conversations before the show, it seemed like a fair number of people were attending Pitchfork specifically to see what was advertised as “Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds.” But what show did we think that was going to be? Wilson’s had a fraught relationship with touring for decades, owing in part to well-documented struggles with mental illness and drug use, so in all honesty, it was unlikely that this was going to be a blowout show. On the other hand, thinking negatively like that sucks. You want to be excited. Wilson’s a singular musical genius. He could’ve played this show at any point in the past 50 years and any place would’ve been packed.

Watching the performance, it’s easy to find yourself asking, why are they doing this? The answer’s nebulous, somewhere in that weird reunion-tour terrain where fame and net revenue and nostalgia meet. Pitchfork is one stop on a larger 65-date international trek in honor of Pet Sounds’ 50th anniversary, as well as the latest in the festival’s series of a band playing a classic album straight through.

Wilson enters to cheers and sits at the piano. “I love when the girls yell,” he says. He pauses. “I love when the boys yell. I’m glad you could all come tonight. We’re going to start things out with the Pet Sounds album.” The only other times we’ll hear much from him later are when he introduces the two instrumental tracks on the album. “Here’s one now with no voices, just instruments,” he says before “Let’s Go Away For Awhile.” The crowd laughs politely. You get a sense he’d rather no one have to sing.

Parts of Pet Sounds sound really great as the sun sets on a beautiful Saturday. Besides Wilson, the group includes founding Beach Boys rhythm guitarist Al Jardine, his son, Mike, who handles the lofty falsetto, longtime band fixture Blondie Chaplin, and a nine-piece backing band. Everyone else plays well and with enthusiasm, bringing out the melancholic grandeur in “God Only Knows” and the brass-driven burst of “Here Today.”

The latter song, however, exemplifies a dynamic that becomes increasingly noticeable and uncomfortable as the show continues: that of a detached-looking Wilson, his voice spent and unsteady, sitting center stage but offering little interest visually except that of his mere presence, contrasted with the professional backing band playing vigorously, Al Jardine and others clearly relishing the moment. No one else really acknowledges Wilson’s there. It not only makes for an incongruous stage picture, but it often creates an unbalanced sound, with emphatic backing harmonies drowning out Wilson’s main vocal lines.

Wilson’s weak voice finds occasional moments of resonance in lyrics written for much younger men to sing and think about, in particular the opening verse of “I’m Waiting For The Day”: “I gave you love with a brand-new start / That’s what you needed the most / To set your broken heart free,” which resonates with an aging wistfulness. During “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” Wilson repeats the line “Sometimes I feel very sad” with a blank inscrutability that makes for a surreal take on the idea of expressing emotion.

The only other big moment of note is during “Sloop John B,” when the band is joined onstage by John and Joan Cusack, who do backing vocals. Apparently John Cusack spent the rest of the show vaping on the side of the stage, so that’s pretty cool.

After finishing Pet Sounds, the band launches into a handful of hits, keeping what’s left of the crowd engaged and bopping through “Good Vibrations,” “Help Me Rhonda,” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.” The Jardines and Chaplin handle lead vocal duties, and Wilson basically disappears. The saxophonist even stands directly in front of him to solo at one point during “Barbara Ann.”

The clear discrepancy between Wilson’s performing capacity and the rest of the band’s makes for uneasy viewing. It calls to mind the tensions that have long defined the Beach Boys regarding who should take creative credit for their groundbreaking experimentation aside from Wilson, as well as acrimony that’s caused multiple rounds of litigation and led to Beach Boys tours featuring partial, warring lineups.

It’s disheartening to watch the ostensible bandleader struggle in isolation through a large band’s performance, and calls into question whether we’re here to celebrate, exploit, or just sort of grimly acknowledge his towering legacy.

The only time that anyone ever really interacts with Brian Wilson is when Al Jardine ends the alternating vocal refrain of “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” by motioning to Wilson and singing “I guess he just wasn’t made for these times.” It’s supposed to come off as thoughtful, but like the rest of the set, it can’t shake a hollow feeling.

Devin Schiff is full of good vibrations. Follow him on Twitter.