Not Just Aging Hippies at Brian Wilson Show

A surprisingly stratified crowd enjoyed a surprisingly hard-rockin' show.

Brian Wilson at the Mann. Photo by Brad Maule

Brian Wilson at the Mann. Photo by Brad Maule

A friend texted us when we got to the Mann Music Center in Fairmount Park last night to see Brian Wilson: “Saw Liz’s piece about Brian Wilson today. Figured you might be here amidst the aging hippies.” Indeed we were, but there were fewer aging hippies than I’d anticipated. Or, better said, there were a lot of aging hippies but plenty of young people, too. I would characterize the audience mix by the contrast in people in the immediate seats around me. Right in front of me were two guys in their 20s, clean-cut and enthusiastic. In front of them there was a man in his 70s, I’d guess, wearing a calculator watch and what I thought was a hearing aid but which proved to be a profusion of ear hair. They were all white, but there were also people in the vicinity who weren’t. That surprised me, as I tend to think of Brian Wilson/Beach Boys fans as a pretty homogenous bunch, but it wasn’t the last surprise I’d have that evening. Here are 12 Other Surprises From the Brian Wilson/Rodriguez Show at the Mann.

1. Songs by opener Rodriguez were well known by the crowd. The 2012 documentary about Rodriguez Searching for Sugarman not only won the Academy Award, it won every other documentary film award it could possibly scoop up, from Sundance to BAFTA. Still, I had no idea that three years later the man who was essentially a musical oddity in the U.S. would have enough fans that they would clap and cheer with delighted recognition at the opening bars of his songs. Some even sang along. Though he had to be helped on and off the stage by people on either side of him, he was in pretty good voice as he sat in a single spotlight alone and played his guitar. If ever a guy were meant for an intimate venue, it’s Rodriguez, but the Mann’s pavilion—with its homey wooden beams and lightning bugs flickering in the darkness—came close.

2. Rodriguez is secretly an old Jewish man, maybe my grandfather. Some of Rodriguez’s stage patter is canned, like the remark—said in response to fans shouting “we love you!”—”I know it’s the drinks, but I love you back,” which he’s said elsewhere on tour. But that’s okay. This is obviously a guy who, when he finds a good line, he sticks with it. Along with some political commentary about registering to vote and getting women into power, he uttered a stream of aphorisms that were half-Groucho Marx, half-cheap fortune cookie. For instance: “You want to know the secret to life?” [Cheers.] “Breathe in and out.” Then he’d chuckle. Here’s another one: “Hate is too powerful an emotion to waste on someone you don’t like.” That one got big applause. There was another one about the mystery of life that was especially goofy, but the crowd didn’t go for it. “Come on,” he said. “That was a good one.” If you say so, Pop Pop.

3. Brian Wilson only has 10 musicians on tour with him. Yes, this is a little facetious. But given the man’s proclivities for multi-instrumentalism, one might have imagined a Polyphonic Spree-sized gathering of singers and musicians on-stage. He really reined it in, bringing along just his current band members: Scott Bennett, Nelson Bragg, Mike D’Amico, Probyn Gregory, Paul Mertens, Darian Sahanaja, Bob Lizik, Nick Walusko, Matt Jardine and Al Jardine. Actually, I saw more people than the ones listed here, but this is the official list of Brian Wilson’s band members. And let it be said: They are all terrific musicians who contributed to the robust sound of the show in remarkable ways. Starting with…

4. The show opened with “Heroes and Villains.” I was expecting something like “Help Me Rhonda” as the opener. This challenging “track,” the first off of 1967’s Smiley Smile, is not what I’d call a crowdpleaser. “Heroes and Villains” is all odd, symphonic instrumentation and shifting time signatures, with moments that seem to lurch to a stop then start again. It’s even interrupted at one point by spoken dialogue. It was written in 1966 for Smile, a grandly imagined project that never came to fruition in the form that Wilson envisioned it, and represents, more than many songs, Wilson’s experimentalist auteur persona. By opening the show with this song, I felt like Wilson was making a statement: “Yes, we’re going to play the hits, but don’t forget what I’m actually capable of.” It worked as a statement from the band, too: “We’ve got unbelievable chops, every single one of us.”

5. “California Girls” is not just window dressing. Demonstrating the band’s prowess in the first song made me pay more attention to what they doing. That’s how I realized that, despite its fatuous lyrics, “California Girls” has a rather rich and complex layering of instrumentation and harmonies—at least in its live iteration.

6. Al Jardine can still sing. Brian Wilson said it himself when he introduced Jardine doing lead vocals on a song: The man still has it. One of the original members of the Beach Boys, Jardine’s voice has aged some, sure, but when he sang tunes like “Then I Kissed Her” and “Cotton Fields,” he really did sound pretty good. He was also a genial presence onstage—happy to be there and careful not to upstage Wilson, who stayed behind a white grand piano the entire time.

7. Blondie Chaplin. Rolling Stone called Chaplin the Zelig of rock and roll a couple of years ago, and he certainly has been around. He played with the Beach boys in the 1970s, with The Band, Bonnie Raitt, David Johansen, Jeff Beck, and toured with the Rolling Stones for more than a decade. Despite his early years with the Beach Boys, I’m not sure anyone in the audience would have expected Chaplin to be such a big part of this show—nor were they happy about it, judging by the mass exodus to the bathrooms when he sang lead vocals on “Wild Honey.” (To be fair, he always sang lead on that track.) Chaplin’s hard-rock orientation, if you can call it that, was in slight discord with the rest of the group. At one point, he was sort of ping-ponging around the stage in a rockstar mode that was visually intrusive and in such contrast with Wilson, who was virtually immobile. In that Rolling Stone interview, Chaplin talked about being in the Beach Boys in the ’70s and said, of he and another bandmate: “Before we joined, they just weren’t great to see live. We gave them a little more oomph.” Let’s put it this way: Chaplin’s still got the oomph. That being said…

8. The show rocked out. Not surprisingly at this point in the game, Brian Wilson was pretty subdued. He seemed to be reading a script off of his teleprompter and it didn’t look like he was playing the piano much. But more than one person I spoke with was surprised by how hard this show rocked, thanks to everyone else on-stage. Sure, “Good Vibrations” is Wilson’s “pocket symphony,” but it’s also, when played to a crowd inclined to dance and cheer, good rock and roll. The encore was a rather blistering sequence of big hits—”Help Me Rhonda,” “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ USA,” “Fun, Fun, Fun”—which sounded less like oldies-radio pablum and more like stadium rock than I knew it could.

9. Brian Wilson wrote an uptempo reggae song. Wilson’s new album, Pier Pressure, is a mixed bag (Pitchfork gave it an ouch-worthy 5.6), but perhaps its most baffling track is “Runaway Dancer,” which is like UB40 and the worst of disco put into a blender. But you know what? He’s thrilled with it. He was more animated during this song than during any other, acting out the lyrics and even dancing in his seat.

10. Pet Sounds songs got the biggest audience response. I expected a show like this to be filled with people who were waiting for the Beach Boys’ classics. But the songs the audience responded most warmly to were from Pet Sounds: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows” (which Wilson said people tell him is “the best song I’ve ever written”), “Good Vibrations,” and “Sloop John B.” Speaking of which…

11. “Sloop John B” is a singalong. I had no idea this song was so incredibly popular. People knew the words! After the show, a friend told me “Sloop John B” is a European football anthem. Must’ve been a lot of foreigners in the audience.

12. Gayborhood shout-out. Finally, perhaps the most surprising thing about the evening was when band member and longtime Wilson collaborator Scott Bennett grabbed the mic and said, “I love Philly and I just spent 20 bucks on a cab each way to go to Sampan. Best Happy Hour in the city. Find yourself there.”

Rodriguez Set List
Inner City Blues
Crucify Your Mind
Love Me or Leave Me
I Wonder
This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues
Sugar Man
Somebody to Love
On the Street Where You Live
You’d Like to Admit It
Rich Folks Hoax

Brian Wilson Set List
Heroes and Villains
California Girls
Shut Down
Little Deuce Coupe
I Get Around
You’re So Good to Me
This Whole World
Then He Kissed Me
Cotton Fields
In My Room
Surfer Girl
Don’t Worry Baby
One Kind of Love
Sail Away
Wild Honey
Sail On, Sailor
Wake the World
Busy Doin’ Nothin’
Surf’s Up
The Right Time
Runaway Dancer
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Sloop John B
God Only Knows
Good Vibrations

All Summer Long
Help Me, Rhonda
Barbara Ann
Surfin’ U.S.A.
Fun, Fun, Fun
Love and Mercy