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Brian Wilson @ Hollywood Bowl 9/12/08

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It’s an LA tradition to send out summer with a fireworks spectacular at the Hollywood Bowl and this year, they may have found their most ideal co-host and honoree in Brian Wilson. As leader of the Beach Boys, he created the closest thing we have to an Original Soundtrack for the city, and last night, we got to see it played out in front of us, complete with fireworks.

While he’s never been a natural performer, Wilson’s live shows have evolved considerably since his return to the road in 1999. He seemed frightened and uncomfortable during those first few years, but the good will of an audience that was just pleased to see him around floated him through the rough spots, and his immaculate band of singing sidemen was always right there to jump in and plug the dyke if his voice was flagging. By the early 2000s he looked a lot better, more relaxed and emotive, actually having some fun up there. At the Bowl on Friday, he seemed to be having the time of his life, and sang as well as I’ve ever heard him in those ten years of shows.

He was set up by perhaps the most impressive opening act for a rock show I’ve ever encountered – the LA Philharmonic, playing some of Brian’s favorite orchestral pieces. An astute Wilsonite could sit there and play “spot the influence” as the Phil performed the Stokowski orchestration of Bach’s Toccata And Fugue In D Minor, and the overtures to Mozart’s Marriage Of Figaro and Gershwin’s Girl Crazy. Conductor John Morris Russell dedicated the Bach piece to the “hill people” in the nosebleed seats, reminiscing about his days as a USC student, watching concerts from the tippy-top of the Bowl’s benches.

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Wilson and his band were then brought out to join the Phil for a couple of songs from his latest album, That Lucky Old Sun (see review here). Kicking off his part of the program with new stuff was something of a risk, but the sheer beauty of Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl and Midnight's Another Day got over to the crowd instantly, and both were warmly received. As the group swing into the miraculous God Only Knows, with the full weight of the Philharmonic behind them, Wilson and his crew matching the orchestrations with arcing vocal harmonies, it felt like the most perfect collaboration between European high art and classic American pop music ever conceived.

After a brief intermission, Wilson and his band returned to dust off a little more than an hour's worth of the Beach Boys' best known hits. While I appreciate that his band usually makes sure to acknowledge some of the obscure gems from the 70s in the set list, to satisfy those of us with a craving for the rarely-heard sad, pretty ones, it is almost overwhelming to have Beach Boys hit after hit aimed right at you. It's like a firehose blast of sunlight right in the chest. No frowny faces in the house, not one. We did get a couple of diversions from the usual program, the tremendous SMiLE opening segment of Our Prayer/ Heroes and Villains, and the gospel-tinged Add Some Music To Your Day.

This was his fourth appearance at the Bowl since 2001, and easily the best sounding. Whatever they Bowl has done to its sound system since the days of his first appearance, it's a completely different experience. I never liked the Bowl for loud rock shows until this year, and this show aounded as clear and brilliant as one could wish for. And with a band this huge, and this talented, it's an important consideration.

As they reached the end of the evening with a non-stop run through Help Me Rhonda - Barbara Ann - Surfin' USA - Fun Fun Fun and the fireworks began to blow around the time of the line "If everybody had an ocean...", it was easy to be overcome with feelings of Californian patriotism. As Elise pointed out, ALL concerts should end with fireworks (why should Kiss fans have all the fun?). But the most touching address was missed by a lot of the crowd. As the fireworks died down and folks started filing out, the band returned to the stage for another new song. "Southern California, dreams wake up for ya," they sang in a near-whisper over a muted vibraphone melody that recalled the spare, tranquil, haunting Beach Boys of the Friends album.

As of press time there are seats available for as cheap as ten bucks for the next two nights. I don't know if I can recommend it highly enough. Great performances of a great program of music, and fireworks. It's a great thing, really.

Brian Wilson performs with the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday September 13 and Sunday September 14 at 8:30 pm. Tickets are $10-$114 and available at the door or from Ticketmaster.

Photo by Elise Thompson for LAist

Set list:

The Star Spangled Banner
W.A. Mozart - Overture to The Marriage of Figaro
J.S. Bach - Toccata and Fugue In D Minor (Arr. Stokowski)
George Gershwin - Overtuer to Girl Crazy

Forever She'll Be My Surfer Girl
Midnight's Another Day
God Only Knows

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California Girls
Catch A Wave
Dance Dance Dance
Surfer Girl
All Summer Long
Add Some Music
Our Prayer/ Heroes And Villains
Do You Wanna Dance
Sloop John B
Wouldn't It Be Nice
Sail On Sailor
I Get Around
Good Vibrations
Help Me Rhonda
Barbara Ann
Surfin' USA
Fun Fun Fun
Southern California