Brian Wilson @ Petersen Automotive Museum Gala 5/6/09
Whether the Beach Boys were singing about showing off their cars, surfing, falling in love or eating hamburgers, they made it sound like the most wonderful thing, like you wanted to be doing that right now. Kids in Omaha might not be able to relate to songs about surfing, but anybody could get what songs like “I Get Around” and “Fun Fun Fun” were about. Much like Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else”, they were about nothing less than the American dream: idealism, pursuit of happiness, pride of ownership and the kind of freedom you can only get from your own set of wheels. Having Brian Wilson play at the Petersen Automotive Museum’s annual fundraising gala was a kind of idealism realized, a harmonious pairing in more ways than one.
Well-heeled gearheads like to do everything with style, especially throw a party, and Peterson's “California Dreaming”, , proved to be no exception. Along with the usual eye-popping auction items, elegant buffet stations and open bar, patrons of the fifteenth anniversary celebration got to witness a rare private show by Brian Wilson, who as the leader of the Beach Boys, did as much to advance the mythology of both Southern California and motor sports as anyone you could name. To have him performing his greatest car songs, in Southern California, in the room with actual woodies and little GTOs and many other cherry custom machines, made for quite a memorable night out.
For all those who think museums are boring, The Petersen is the kind of place that can change your mind forever. There’s something about really old, really cool cars that combines history, science, visual art and a powerful “wow” factor into an undeniable appeal. So it’s not surprising that support for its mission, in the form of contributions to the gala’s impressive live and silent auctions, came from across the worlds of sports, medicine, entertainment, fine art and travel. The various drool-worthy items offerred during the pre-performance live auction - my favorite being a 1969 Beach Boys album signed by all six members of the band at the time, including the late Dennis and Carl Wilson - went for somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand dollars all combined. After a live auction that also sold three bass guitars to be signed and played by Brian Wilson that night, he took the stage.
The wedding reception-like surroundings seemed to throw the band off their game momentarily, and the opening “California Girls” felt a little hesitant. For a band more accustomed to performing in concert halls to hushed and reverent audiences, it can’t be easy to make the transition to a noisy dinner party. But once a crowd of people got up and started dancing to his music, Wilson visibly relaxed and proceeded to give one of the most high-spirited performances I’ve seen since his 1999 return to the stage.
Wilson generously adjusted his usual greatest-hits set list for the performance in the museum’s ballroom, adding the rarely (if ever) performed auto anthems “Little Deuce Coupe”, “409”, “Shut Down” and “Custom Machine.” The succession of short, catchy songs with little pause in between felt almost like a Ramones set, in comparison with Brian’s more typical concerts, which usually mix in some of his stranger and more obscure music with the expected crowd-pleasers. Although they played only three songs written after 1966 (a marked contrast to his show at the Wiltern a few months ago which featured the entirety of his latest album, That Lucky Old Sun), and completely skipped over the recently re-discovered masterpiece SMiLE, the chance to hear Brian and the band run through the Beach Boys’ early 60’s catalog while doing the frug, or slow-dancing to “Surfer Girl” just a few feet from the guy who wrote it, was a rare treat, another one of those perfectly Californian moments.
Someone should write a song about it.