Brian Wilson’s story is generally understood to follow a tragic arc, that of the genius songwriter who blazed through the 1960s pop charts with the Beach Boys, went on to create arguably the greatest album of all time in Pet Sounds, and then fell victim to severe mental health problems and substance abuse.
However, that trajectory does not take stock of Wilson’s live renaissance over the past 15 years.
While his voice is no longer the mighty instrument it once was, and though he sometimes seems quite detached from the coterie of brilliant musicians onstage with him, Wilson’s live performances of the Smile and Pet Sounds albums have salvaged a sense of hope in his story.
As a result, these shows are a strange experience, as if Wilson, his band, and the fans have all gathered together to honour some inherent mystery in his splendid songs and their stunning harmonic melodies.
In the Big Top, Wilson and his band book-end the main event — a live rendition of Pet Sounds – with spins through countless classic Beach Boys numbers. From ‘California Girls’ to ‘Help Me Rhonda’ it is mind-boggling how many classics they run through.
Wilson’s voice is zapped nowadays, but there’s still great poignancy in hearing him sing ‘In My Room’. Significantly, original Beach Boy Al Jardine is by Wilson’s piano throughout, caught up in the reverie.
Meanwhile, Jardine’s son Matt does the heavy lifting on the vocals front these days and he is quite incredible, his rendition of ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ being one of the show’s highlights.
Of course, the centrepiece is Pet Sounds. ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ sets the tone. Like most of the songs on the night, it finds everyone in the 12-piece ensemble playing frantically and contributing vocals.
Unsurprisingly, the showstoppers are ‘I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ and ‘God Only Knows’, with Wilson braving vocal duties and the audience accompanying him with reverent and appropriate awe.
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