DARIEN LAKE - Why were the Beach Boys playing at Darien Lake, and not at a ballpark, as has been their wont for decades?
Because Brian Wilson was in the house. That’s a game-changer, for anyone who has followed this band’s odd trajectory through the history of American popular music. He is both the Beethoven and Stravinsky of rock, the man who could hear the most elaborate chords in his head, and separate them out into vocal harmonies for his brothers and his cousins.
Darien Lake was not full on the lawn on Friday - there were an awful lot of “must-see” shows last night - but everyone who came got a full dose of the gorgeous, post-Phil Spector vision of Brian Wilson’s music.
The man himself seemed reserved and tentative on Friday, seated behind a lovely white grand piano, singing harmonies and the occasional lead vocal, but never appearing fully relaxed.
Understandable, considering the rough road he’s had to tread over the years. But many in attendance seemed to be waiting for Brian to acknowledge them, somehow.
As the sole remaining Wilson brother, and the man largely responsible for the gorgeously lush vocal harmonies that define the Beach Boys sound, Wilson was on the spot. He dealt with this fact by ignoring it, for the most part. He looked confused at times. But he never lost the plot, as the band wove its way through two sets of evergreen hits, new songs, and deep cuts.
Every aspect of Beach Boys history was represented on Friday.
The band - Wilson, singers Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston, with the help of guitarist David Marks and most of the Wondermints, the band Wilson used to finish his “Smile” album - gave the assembled a heavy dose of early tunes like “Catch a Wave” and “Surfin’ Safari,” but was not shy in dealing out the Wilson “Beach symphonies” like “Surfer Girl” and “Please Let Me Wonder.”
This stuff hit hard, as the ensemble nailed the vocal harmonies as if they were players in an orchestra.
A certain amount of trepidation necessarily greeted the devout Beach Boys fan on Friday, certainly. Would the band, most of its members approaching or already having cracked 70, be able to deliver the goods? Most impressively, they did. Singer Mike Love was his usually mildly creepy self, particularly when he had the lead vocal spot. But everyone seemed to be hanging back and working for the greater good. This worked in the band’s favor. Personal showmanship never interrupted with the music itself. If Wilson himself was less than animated, the music he wrote was given a glorious rendering.
Johnston took center stage for “Disney Girls,” and man, this was some seriously heady stuff. Killer harmonies, and Johnston’s lead, combined to create a stirring mix of pop and serious classical music. Jardine’s take on the Crystals’ “Then I Kissed Her” was vibrant and beautifully raw; the inclusion of the rarely played “California” and “Marcella” reminded us all why we fell in love with Brian Wilson in the first place.
The band wisely split the difference between the easy-going pop tunes that made them popular, and the more dense and challenging compositions that made Wilson an icon, and also drove him out of the band, as a touring musician.
The result was an immensely pleasing twin sets of music that reminded us of the genius of this most American of bands. Let’s face it - these guys are old. Older than the Rolling Stones, even. But on Friday, the Beach Boys brought it, big time.