By DAN MACINTOSH
The first few songs into Brian Wilson’s The Christmas Album Live concert were awkward and – truth be told – just a bit creepy. Wilson, who required help walking to, and sitting down at his white baby grand piano, sat stone-faced as he sang (talked?) his way through “Little Saint Nick” and “The Man With All The Toys.”
He didn’t smile, frown or even move rhythmically to this pioneering pop music he created. Was he just going through the motions? What was he thinking and feeling? There was no way of knowing. It was impossible to avoid momentarily contemplating Wilson’s difficult life, which has included well publicized drug and psychological problems. So, in these first few moments, at least, he appeared to be more casualty than conqueror.
Wilson’s accomplished band, however, saved the evening from turning into an uncomfortable audience experience. Guitarist/vocalist Al Jardine stood to Wilson’s left, and acted as the de facto master of ceremonies by giving brief, historical and much appreciated introductions for some to these wonderful Beach Boys and Wilson solo Christmas selections. Whenever Jardine sang lead, as he did during the post-holiday music portion of the show with “Sloop John B,” he sounded both strong and fully-invested.
The Wilson touring band also included former Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin, who brought welcome enthusiasm to his front man performances. He appeared to be, well, a little overserved. Nevertheless, he lightened the mood significantly whenever he a sang or soloed on electric guitar. He sang “Sail On, Sailor,” one of the better latter period Beach Boys songs.
Most notably, though, was how he sang “Blue Christmas” right after mentioning this night would have been Carl Wilson’s birthday. We’ve all had bluer Christmases with the silencing of Carl’s pure singing voice. When Brian Wilson sang “God Only Knows,” Carl was especially missed. Carl was the Beach Boys’ best vocalist, and while Brian’s voice had gained confidence and strength by this later section in the show, its limitations only further highlighted the youngest Beach Boy’s irreplaceability.
This was also one large band, which included French horn, trombone, saxophones and vibes, in addition to standard rock guitar, bass and drums, and best proved its skills with a spot-on performance of “Good Vibrations.” Hearers immediately recognized how much these players had studied this pivotal recording well, clearly evidenced in this spirited, yet detailed, live rendering.
Honestly, as joyous as the Christmas music portion was, though, singing along to “Good Vibrations” felt like a yet-unnamed Rock N Roll holiday of some sort. It’s a type of hymn, or at least a teenage symphony to God, for sure. These goose bump-inducing good vibes were followed by a sampling from the Beach Boys’ best known ‘fun’ music catalogue, which included “Help Me Rhonda,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.”
After visiting the hyperactive 60s beach culture for a spell, the group quieted things down for “White Christmas,” before sending the audience home with a group-sing on “Auld Lang Syne.”
Ruby Friedman opened the show with a short set of quirky, personal songs. She has a great singing voice and was backed by a pair of guitarists and a violinist. Although stylistically different, Friedman follows her own unique musical path, which ultimately made a her a good opener for Wilson.
Although this Brian Wilson (mostly) Christmas concert got off to a rocky start, it finished strong. Wilson is nobody’s idea of a charismatic performer. Then again, he rarely toured with the Beach Boys, even at his creative height with the Pet Sounds release, so Wilson may have never actually been a must-see live act. Therefore, this was a night to celebrate the music of the Beach Boys, arguably the greatest ever American rock and roll band. Likely, most in the audience went home thankful for the chance to celebrate the musical genius behind it all as an early Christmas gift.
Video courtesy of Hal Scheie: