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Legendary Pop Rock Icon Brian Wilson Closes US Tour with Rodriguez in Seattle

Brian Wilson and his band perform at Benaroya Hall. (Photo: John Lill)

Should legends be judged on their past accomplishments, or must they win over audiences anew each time? This question seemed to be asked, and answered, twice at the Brian Wilson and Rodriguez concert on Sunday. Legends can do whatever they want, but this show exceeded expectations.

Seattle’s grand Benaroya hall was filled with grey hair and fancy Hawaiian shirts for the final stop of Wilson’s 16-date US tour. But it wasn’t all aging baby boomers in attendance. Wilson has come to be recognized as a true pop music genius, and his songs have touched and inspired countless musicians over the years. Young surfer-looking dudes took seats next to folks who could be their grandparents, and there were music fans from all walks of life in between. And why not? It isn’t often that a legend of this status makes an appearance.

Energy in the massive room was already high as the night kicked off with the opening act, enigmatic folk singer Rodriguez, who was the subject of the Academy Award-winning 2012 documentary “Searching For Sugar Man.” After a brief career in the early 70s, Rodriguez quit music and worked largely in manual labor. But the film, about his unbeknownst massive popularity in South Africa,  and subsequent re-release of his records by Seattle’s Light in the Attic records, reinvigorated interest in the politically-charged singer, and he has embarked upon a number of tours since then.

The years appear to have not been especially kind to Rodriguez, who turned 73 just two days before this show. He was led on stage and helped onto a stool, and in addition to some general frailty, he seemed to have some issues with his vision as well. But many in attendance were there as much for him as for the Beach Boys, as evidenced by the many Rodriguez t-shirts in the crowd.

“We love you!” a woman shouted, to a swell of cheers. “Merci beaucoup,” a laid-back Rodriguez responded. He was a bit mumbly, adjusting his red sunglasses and signature top hat awhile before finally launching into “Inner City Blues” from Cold Fact. At times, the sound of his solo acoustic guitar seemed to be lacking in some of the higher notes, and his voice wasn’t always the strongest (though it never really was). But his lyrics and all around cool came through clearly. This is a man who some say could have possibly been another Bob Dylan, had a frustrating lack of recognition and the pressures of the world not caused him to quit.

Rodriguez seemed intent on connecting with the audience throughout his set, at times rambling too long between songs, threatening to lose his focus and momentum. Yet he was also very much on point, interacting with shouts from the crowd and even pausing a political rap to wish a “bless you” to someone who sneezed. He also made it clear several times how appreciative he was to be on tour with Brian Wilson, saying at one point, “I’m a solid 73 now, and I’m as happy as a Beach Boy!”

He also offered some real nuggets of wisdom embedded in his banter. “Hate is too powerful an emotion to waste on someone you really don’t like,” he said at one point, to which the audience responded enthusiastically. Then he launched into the dark, almost ominous notes of “Sugar Man,” one of his signature songs laden with drug references. After the tune he gave a little anti-drug spiel, saying the song was “descriptive, not prescriptive”.

Rodriguez undercut this stance somewhat a few songs later when he rambled a bit vaguely on marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado. But he has always been a self-described musico-politico, and he later used the spotlight to talk about wealth disparity. The audience either agreed or indulged with cheers. But the applause got much louder when he launched into hits like the lusty (and decidedly less political) “I Wonder.”

He also pulled out a surprising cover of Elton John’s 1970 ballad “Your Song,” which was done in a loping, syncopated style rendering it somewhat unrecognizable from the source material. Rodriguez certainly made the song his own, as he did with his final song, a cover of Frank Sinatra’s “Nice ‘n’ Easy,” which again was played very much in his signature acoustic folk style. It is likely that many did not even realize that these were cover songs. Despite his somewhat rambling banter, and the fading of his voice, it was a special treat to get to see Rodriguez, and the crowd applauded enthusiastically as he was helped off stage

The set break was short, and it wasn’t long before a 10-piece band came on stage, making use of risers to elevate the back row of musicians. The legend himself, Brian Wilson, slowly made his way to a white grand piano and sat down on the bench somewhat heavily. The room absolutely erupted in cheers, as fans screamed their excited appreciation at the stage. Wilson is also 73 now, and it shows in his physical demeanor. He was a bit stony faced, and remained sitting throughout the entire show. But the band he had assembled absolutely brought his songs to life, little moments of banter and the occasional smile showed the maestro was indeed enjoying himself, at least a bit.

As the first a cappella notes of the Beach Boys song “Our Prayer” began to fill the auditorium, it became clear this was going to be a sonically excellent show. Harmonies were tight, high, and gorgeous. Then, they launched into the rocking “Heroes and Villains,” another song from the Smile Sessions. Multiple guitars, saxophone, drums and percussion, bass, keys, and other instruments created a wall of sound as the song ran through its many twists and turns and mini-songs contained within the sort-of medley.

Wilson’s voice did not take center stage for much of the night. He did sing, but deferred to other voices often, especially Beach Boys founder and guitarist Al Jardine and his son, Matt Jardine, who tackled the evening’s most challenging falsettos with aplomb. Yet it came across much like a conductor making use of the strongest tools at his disposal, even when they were not his own.

By starting the show with a couple of rarer Beach Boys tunes from the long-unreleased Smile Sessions, Wilson made it clear the evening was going to be more than a dusty old Vegas-style best-of review, which was much appreciated. Too often, the Beach Boys are relegated to their many bubblegum oldies hits. But Wilson is actually one of the 20th century’s great pop songwriters and composers, and this show proved his songs very much hold up all these years later.

Certainly, the Beach Boys are steeped in a sort of innocent pre-irony blond Americana nostalgia, but this show sought to explore some darker and less well-worn corners as well. Still, the cheers increased exponentially when the band launched into the first hit of the evening, the much-loved “California Girls,” complete with four guitar players. Other favorites followed not long after, such as “Little Deuce Coup” and “I Get Around,” the latter which Wilson introduced as “an early Beach Boys song from the ’60s.”

Even with dozens of hit singles to pick from, the band found time for a cover, as Al Jardine sang lead on The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” (changing the lyrics to “then I kissed her”). A few songs later, Wilson took over a more commanding position from center stage as he sang lead on the introvert’s anthem, “In My Room.” Wilson famously had a nervous breakdown at just 22 years of age and swore off the stress of the frenetic touring life. He retired from the spotlight to work on his multi-layered masterpiece Pet Sounds. Yet, even in earlier songs like “In My Room” can be heard his earnest desire to shut out the world. Thankfully, he has been able to face the crowds again a number of times since he first quit performing in the mid 1960s. And while he was not overly effusive on stage at Benaroya, neither did he appear abjectly miserable.

Perhaps the first really pure example of the Beach Boys’ signature, masterfully high male harmonies of the evening came midway through the set, when Wilson introduced Matt Jardine to sing lead on “Don’t Worry Baby.” The younger Jardine did the song’s challenging notes justice, and the audience seemed to recognize this as a highlight, cheering him enthusiastically. Perhaps there was some awareness that Wilson couldn’t be expected to carry the vocal weight of many of the songs, and that torch had to be passed to younger singers. Yet it did not detract from the enjoyment of this classic all-American rock and roll.

Soon after, Wilson introduced the wiry Blondie Chaplin to sing and add some rock guitar solos. Chaplin toured with the Beach Boys in the ’70s at a time when Wilson only performed sporadically; he also played backup for The Rolling Stones for many years. Chaplin added an extra dose of swagger and attitude to the show, and seemed to be very much enjoying himself onstage as he vamped for the crowd and band mates alike.

Next, Wilson led the band through several more tunes, including a cover of Jimmy Rodgers’ “Honeycomb,” and the live debut of his bluesy rarity “I’m Broke,” which he claimed, perhaps jokingly, that the group had put the song together only the day before. The set was also peppered with a few songs from Wilson’s newly released album No Pier Pressure, including “Runaway Dancer.” These newest songs are solid, but by no means surpass his earlier efforts. They are at times a bit too smooth, a bit too polished, and even dated, as if they came out of a ’70s disco or ’80s ballad machine. This particular song verges on cheesy. But it was great to see that the man is still writing, still creating, and not simply resting on his laurels and greatest hits.

The set led up to a string of highlights from 1966’s Pet Sounds. It was smart to save these songs for last, as they stood out as shining examples of Wilson’s genius. Matt Jardine again lent his vocals to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” which drew a standing ovation. The band followed with “Sloop John B,” that had much of the audience singing along. And finally, what is often hailed as Wilson’s greatest songwriting achievement, the gorgeous “God Only Knows.” Sure, Wilson’s voice was not what it once was, but it didn’t matter, the song is just that great, and the band was just that solid.

With barely a pause, Wilson launched the musicians into a fast tempo, high energy performance of “Good Vibrations.” The band had that fun, end-of-tour energy. They were loose, yet each note was tight. This last set of songs drew another huge standing ovation as Wilson gingerly left the stage. Several in the crowd understandably thought this must be the end of the show, and got up to leave. The band had played some 29 songs already! But of course, the thunderous applause brought an encore. And what an encore it was!

The six-song encore was a rolicking, high energy string of hits, including “Help Me Rhonda,” “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ USA,” and “Fun Fun Fun.” There were many moments throughout the night where you could close your eyes and be transported back in time, and happily so. This touring band very much did these classics justice. Portland roots rocker M. Ward, who plays with She & Him on Wilson’s new record, was pulled out on stage during the encore to do some background singing and acoustic guitar strumming. The celebratory mood was infectious.

Finally, Wilson ended the 35-song night with the title track from his recently released biopic, “Love and Mercy.” The song comes from his 1988 self-titled album, which signaled his long-awaited return to recording. It was a sweet, touching end to an all-around excellent night of music. Wilson has sealed his status as an American musical treasure, and it was a treat to see him live one more time. The crowd filed out high and happy into the cool Seattle summer evening.

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Isaac Kaplan-Woolner is a live music fanatic and radio nerd living in Seattle. When he’s not attending concerts, he works as an assistant producer for the public radio show Travel with Rick Steves. He also volunteers and occasionally moonlights at KEXP Radio, and serves on the board of directors for the nonprofit Fremont Abbey Arts Center. He got his start in radio with a punk show at the tiny 10 watt station WNMH at his highschool in Northfield, MA, then in college volunteered at KBOO radio in Portland, OR, before landing a job as a DJ and news producer at KOHO Radio in Leavenworth, WA. Isaac collects vinyl, gig posters, ticket stubs, and ukuleles. The first CD he bought with his own money (when he was 11) was a used copy of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. These days he listens to all sorts of music, though he still has that Public Enemy CD somewhere.