Beach Boys mingled with a Yardbird when Brian Wilson teamed with fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jeff Beck at E.J. Thomas Hall last night.
One wouldn’t think the songwriting genius behind America’s greatest vocal band would have much in common with the fleet-fingered English guitar hero, but each icon delivered a stellar set at the Akron University venue before collaborating on a handful of encores that dropped jaws, tugged heartstrings, and pasted smiles on the faces of nearly everyone in the capacity crowd.
Wilson took the stage first, accompanied by fellow former Beach Boys Al Jardine and David Marks. Greeting the audience, Jardine made a point of stressing their “ex” status—a dig on Beach Boys singer Mike Love, who owns the band name and dismissed Wilson and friends following a successful 50th anniversary reunion two summers ago.
Despite his well-documented health problems and sporadic touring over the decades, Wilson remains The Beach Boys’ anchor, an underdog orchestrator responsible for some of the most memorable melodies of our time. And with brothers Carl and Dennis having passed away years ago, Brian also embodies the spirit of the group—whose music evolved beyond Love’s hot rod anthems and get-the-girl zingers—even if law prohibits him from touring under their moniker.
Supported by members of The Wondermints (who helped recreate Smile in 2004 and performed That Lucky Old Sun with Brian in 2008), Wilson parked himself at a white piano for a hopscotch through time touching on some of his most celebrated tunes from the early 1960s and 70s. Following an a cappella cover of Bobby Troup’s “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring,” the ensemble got things swinging with Summer Days (And Summer Nights!) smash “California Girls” and 20/20 ditty “Do It Again.” Gradually coming to life, Wilson thanked fans for attending—then led them in a seemingly spontaneously round-robin sing-along with “Row, Row, Your Boat.” “You’re So Good to Me” provided more samples of the evening’s many la-la, dit-dit, and woo-woo-laden doo wop harmonies.
All told, twelve musicians occupied the stage for Wilson’s act, playing a variety of instruments that ranged from electric guitars and bass to French horn, trumpet, banjo, and jaw harp. The unorthodox instrumentation was needed, given the dense “Wall of Sound” tapestries woven by Wilson on mid-to late-60s fare like Pet Sounds and Smile; even incidental percussion like sleigh bells and tambourine made a difference. “Heroes and Villains” showcased the band’s range while celebrating Wilson’s quirkiness. “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B,” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” served up Brian’s lovelier, cinematic side—and the big guy himself handled lead on a couple of them, the once-reclusive Renaissance man venturing outside his comfort zone.
Wilson hasn’t been able to hit his heavenly high notes for some time, preferring to settle his pipes comfortably in the midrange, as on “You’re So Good To Me.” Still, that voice was unmistakably BRIAN WILSON, so for practical purposes it didn’t matter whether Brian was tickling the ivories like Scott Joplin or absently plunking away on dead piano keys. He could have been eating an omelet while the band played—provided he chime in occasionally between mouthfuls—and we’d have loved it. That said, the maestro seemed very “there” and caught up in the fun at E.J. Thomas Hall, swaying on his piano bench and snapping his fingers. Wilson even commented as the programmed rolled along, as if critiquing someone else’s work:
“That’s a good song,” he’d quip. “I really like that one.”
Longtime Wilson sideman Jeff Foskett handled the high lead vocal of “Don’t Worry, Baby” and swapped acoustic and electric guitars (6 and 12 string) throughout the night. Marks prefaced the Dennis Wilson-penned “Little Bird” with a tree-climbing story from his youth involving The Beach Boys drummer. Jardine explained how Wilson and the band enjoyed mixing classic music with contemporary sounds, shuffling esoteric Americana with modern acoustic for medleys stitching together such strains as show tune “Old Man River” and Huddie Ledbetter’s “Cottonfields.” Jardine also took point on “Then I Kissed Her”—The Beach Boys’ answer to The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me”—with Wilson and company faithfully rendering Phil Spector’s vast sonic spectrum despite the simple arrangement.
Darian Sahanaja and Scotty Bennett dialed in piano, synth, and string sounds on a couple Kurzweil keyboards overlooking Marks. Sahanaja channeled Carl Wilson for 1967 Wild Honey favorite “Darlin’,” while Bennett did a fair impersonation of Blondie Chaplin when singing lead on1973’s soulful Holland hit “Sail On, Sailor.” Jardine took the mic again on his own “Help Me, Rhonda,” joined by the audience on the familiar chorus. Arriving late in the act, the selection made for a smooth transition from “serious” Wilson songs back to feel-good classics (“I Get Around,” “Good Vibrations”) that got folks on their feet. “Fun, Fun, Fun” kept them dancing another three minutes until intermission.
Beck’s four-piece backup band—which featured two ladies and no vocals at all—was a dynamic visual and aural contrast to Wilson’s multi-guitar boys club. Drummer Jonathan Joseph kept time on his Ludwig kit, supplying sturdy beats, and co-guitarist Nicolas Meier shined (particularly on the flamenco-influenced “Yemin”), but the females—Lizzie Ball and Rhonda Smith—each received a few well-deserved moments in the spotlight. The elegant, blonde violinist ball bowed her instrument to fill the spaces ordinarily occupied by keyboards. Smith pinned supple grooves on “You Never Know” and “The Pump,” hanging back until her solo—at which point she let loose with furious thump-slaps and funky string pops.
Powered by the Brit’s searing Stratocaster (which Jeff played with his fingertips instead of a pick), the outfit steered through material by John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, and Jan Hammer (“Eternity’s Breath,” “Stratus,” “Even Odds”) before hitting original Beck material. Jeff’s interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” was sublime—but he could have wailed a few minutes more without being accused of self-indulgence. High octane numbers like “Big Block” (from 1989’s Guitar Shop) underscored the sonic disparity between Wilson’s sweeping pop symphonies and Beck’s internal combustion guitar histrionics.
Clad in boots and vest (over a sleeveless shirt), the 69-year old Beck scorched through “Hambone” Willie Newbern’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” then fascinated with his take on The Beatles’ “A Day in The Life” (Beck’s version of the Sgt. Pepper staple appearing on his 2001 disc, You Had It Coming). The core Beach Boys—Wilson, Foskett, Jardine, and Marks—returned to the stage for the haunting church-like “Our Prayer,” which segued into Smile’s “Child Is the Father of the Man” and “Surf’s Up.” Beck contributed a poignant lead guitar line in lieu of vocals on the latter, with Ball and The Beach Boys adding the “My God, my God” in the appropriate spots.
Wilson and The Beach Boys / Wondermints then complemented the Beck contingent for adrenalized encore numbers “Barbara Ann” and “Surfin’ USA,” but it’ll be the Wilson / Beck duet of “Danny Boy” that’ll stay with concertgoers for years to come. Indeed, the matchup was one to remember—from the majestic music and colorful lights and LED displays to the sweet scent wafting from the incense stick on Wilson’s piano—a inspired pairing of Rock Hall legends in a semi-intimate theatre environment conducive to the artists’ connection with audience. There was a palpable “cool factor” just being in the same building with Wilson and Beck, much less witnessing the rollicking survey of their music as it unfolded onstage, blaring triumphantly over the PAs.