31 December 2007

California’s Lucky Old Son

Filed under: Brian Wilson, That Lucky Old Sun — Howard @ 12:00 am

That Lucky Old Sun (A Narrative)
Royal Festival Hall, London
14 September 2007

Published in Endless Summer Quarterly, Fall 2007

Talk about Lucky Old Sun, it’s Lucky Old Britain these days, if you’re a Brian Wilson fan.

Fabulous tours every year since 2002 – Pet Sounds (x2), Smile (x2), Glastonbury and the festival circuit – and now the premiere of a new, commissioned work, That Lucky Old Sun. We get so much Brian over here there was talk of ‘nostalgia fatigue’ before the present set of 11 gigs in London and five other cities. Early touring in 2007 did not auger well. A short summer tour with a depleted band was documented on Norwegian and British TV. A quick trot through the biggest hits and they were on to the next festival. It looked a bit blasé, even if there was a thrill (for me) in seeing Break Away being performed at last. On the evidence of the TV clips, Brian’s voice seemed to be all over the place, though he seemed to be quite happily – if briskly – working through the standards.

But fans are fans: we couldn’t wait for September to come, and I was happy early on the evening of Friday 14th to be crossing Waterloo Bridge watching the sun go down ahead of what was expected to be a wonderful evening.

First set
Girl Don’t Tell Me
Dance Dance Dance
Salt Lake City
Then I Kissed Her
In My Room
Lucky Old Sun (teaser)
Drive In
Do You Wanna Dance
When I Grow Up To Be A Man
She Knows Me Too Well
I’d Love Just Once To See You
Do It Again
Sail On Sailor
California Girls
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Sloop John B
God Only Knows
Heroes And Villains
Good Vibrations

Brian bounds on stage looking fit. Without much ceremony he leaps into Girl Don’t Tell Me followed by Dance Dance Dance, a personal favourite of mine. His voice sounds good, and he’s not being covered by anyone. He leaves the falsetto parts to Jeffrey Foskett and generally doesn’t stray into difficult territory. All the band is there (unlike the smaller group used earlier in the summer) and later on they’re augmented by the Stockholm Strings and Horns. There are sometimes nearly 20 musicians on stage and there’s some great power in there. In My Room is followed by a fragment of new music and a corny exchange between Brian and Darian Sahanaja, ‘Are you sure you want to play That Lucky Old Sun now, Brian?’

The evening was billed to contain “a number of his classic compositions that he has never performed live”, and among them it was amazing (for the dedicated core of Wild Honey fans) to find I’d Love Just Once to See You on the bill. As you might expect it was faithfully and delightfully reproduced. Phil Spector was given a name check before Then I Kissed Her and Sloop John B was introduced with a brief history of the song’s origins (the last time I saw SJB performed it was introduced as ‘a song about a ship’).

The band sounds good, and God Only Knows is introduced as ‘the best song I ever wrote’ (quite a contrast to being in thrall to Paul McCartney’s assessment of the song). A standing ovation followed the song’s conclusion. Heroes and Villains is my highlight of the first set: a perfect rendition vocally and instrumentally, complete with the Cantina section and that lovely a cappella sign off at the end. I would have stopped there, but Good Vibrations has to be done and, as it has been squeezed out of the end of the show, it’s new home is here. When Brian sings ‘here we go again’ in the ‘I’m picking up good vibrations’ refrain, I know how he feels. It must be a difficult song to keep fresh (at least it’s not an excuse for the corny humour of Mike Love I saw a few years ago); the ‘hum-dee-dahs’ are there so it still retains that slightly novel twist.

So that’s the first set: a good workout and warm up for the main item to follow, in just 20 minutes.

Second set
That Lucky Old Sun
Morning Beat
Good Kind Of Love
Forever You’ll Be My Surfer Girl
Live Let Live
Mexican Girl
California Roll
Oxygen To The Brain
Can’t Wait Too Long
Midnight’s Another Day
Going Home
Southern California

Johnny B Goode
I Get Around
Help Me Rhonda
Barbara Ann
Surfin’ USA
Fun Fun Fun

Second Encore
She’s Leaving Home

Brian Wilson Band

The band rejoins the stage and once assembled Brian says, ‘Sit back, relax, and enjoy … That Lucky Old Sun, A Narrative’. A note sounds to provide the key and after a pause the band delivers a sweet a cappella introduction before Brian launches into the main theme of the night, to a sparse accompaniment. A drum roll and we switch to a new song, Morning Beat. Up tempo and the whole band joins in, following Jimmy Hines’ drums.

After a verse or two there’s another change in tempo as the song switches (with some nice ooh-ing harmonies) to a gospel refrain (‘hallelujah’) followed by a clomping piano, reminiscent of Rio Grande. (‘Hear those guitars gently strumming’ replaces ‘The great big river rolls on and on’.) No sooner does this register than the song takes off again, returns to the main beat, and leads into the first narration.

A simple, holding, pair of piano chords plays and the backdrop lights up to a slide show, a montage of vintage postcards and replica Hanna-and-Barbera-style animation effects. The narration is a recording of Brian speaking words by Van Dyke Parks, ‘Just now I was thinking about another perfect day, wishing it would come your way.’ It leads in to the catchy Good Kind of Love: the Stockholm strings sound good here and Taylor Mills has a prominent vocal, nicely contrasting Brian’s lower register. I like the chorus, and the song blends in a fragment of That Lucky Old Sun. There’s a gorgeous swinging orchestral break and the song merges into Forever You’ll Be My Surfer Girl.

Brian’s voice is a little weak here but towards the end the band’s disco-era Frankie-Valli style vocals rescue the song. Another narration and Brian is describing Venice Beach to a rich band accompaniment: ‘There’s an old smudge of a beatnik by the band, looking like a dog who’s had his day.’ Before long we are in to a fine rendition of Live Let Live (with, I think, quite different lyrics to those on the soundtrack to Arctic Tale). There are lines like ‘I’ve got a notion we’re all from the ocean’ and ‘I am a diver, a long line survivor’, and the song ends beautifully with a Gershwin-esque transition to the surprising Mexican Girl.
Mariachi and cha-cha sounds abound; the band is having fun and now the cumulative effect of all this music is striking home, reinforced by the guitar picking in this section. The Mexican themes continue through the next narration which mixes Spanish and English, concluding with a second reference to ‘the heartbeat in LA’ before handing over to Jeff Foskett, strumming his ukulele in California Roll.

There’s an infectious rolling rhythm to this song as Scott Bennett showcases a vaudeville-style vocal. As momentum builds, Brian takes over at the third verse (does he really sing, ‘Every girl is the next Vera Lyn, every guy the next Erroll Flynn’?), and the band builds to a traditional New Orleans jazz accompaniment. ‘You don’t have to climb the Capitol Tower or play the Hollywood Bowl’ – this is real good time music; the Rio Grande theme is reprised briefly, before New Orleans takes over again and That Lucky Old Sun’s gospel fragment ends the song.

Another narration segment, with an acting theme, and more Hollywood-style incidental music, another ‘heartbeat in LA’. A bell rings and the catchy Oxygen to the Brain starts. ‘I cried a million tears/I wasted a lot of years/Life is so dead’, the lyrics don’t match the tempo it seems, but the chorus is more upbeat, ‘Ready steady California/I’m filling up my lungs again <inhale> and feel alive’. Background vocals hit the right key. There’s a big emotional hit as the song ends and an impeccable rendition of the ‘Been too long’ harmonies from Can’t Wait too Long plays to a montage of pictures of the Wilson brothers; applause ripples through the audience and with barely a pause there’s an elegiac piano introduction to Midnight’s Another Day.

Beautifully done with subtle orchestration and harmonies and a backdrop illuminated with a large autumnal orange sun (I wonder if the designer saw the Olafur Eliasson installation in Tate Modern when Smile was performed here in 2004); this song pulls every BW string you can think of – muted trumpets, sympathetic harmonies, swelling strings, organ – I loved it. The piano plays out to a coda of harmonies, ‘Lucky Old Sun … he rolls around heaven all day’.
A brief violin note and we thump into ‘I’m Going Home’. Another rolling rocker which is standard fare until the stunning a cappella break: ‘At 25 I turned out the light ‘cos I couldn’t handle the fear glare in my tired eyes, and now I’m back drawing shades of kind blue sky’. Back into the main song and – with a touch of Rock’n’Roll Music in the chorus, I think – we roll on again. ‘Now I’m home where I belong.’ A pause for triumphant applause and we hear that piano again, this time introducing Southern California, ‘I had this dream/Singing with my brothers/In harmony/Supporting each other’ .. a subtle vibe sound fills out the song; strings swell, leading into a glorious concluding harmony burst.

The standing ovation runs for several minutes, Jeff comes back on stage to cheers, ‘Thank you London!’.

The band is introduced in a sort of tag sequence – Jeff introduces Stockholm Strings and Horns and Jimmy Hines, Jimmy introduces Bob, Bob Nicky, and so on. It’s a big band and it takes quite a while, but the warmth, friendship and love this band has built over the last eight years is evident and together with Brian and the audience we really do feel like privileged participants in an extended family gathering.

The encore is in the usual house style. Johnny B Goode is new (and not quite right) while Brian dons the bass guitar for Barbara Ann and Surfin’ USA. The second and final encore is Brian’s arrangement of She’s Leaving Home, ‘Paul McCartney’s greatest song’. The main verses are jaunty and upbeat, but the choruses are true to the original. The song is fresh and fully arranged for the entire band and strings and horns. I’d love to hear this recorded.
That Lucky Old Sun is a great piece of work. At 35 minutes it’s a real jewel, brightly polished. If you are drawn to Brian because of his capability to create works like Rio Grande or Smile, or because of his collaboration on Orange Crate Art, then this gives you heart. I think Peter Reum spoke about ‘long form compositions’ after Smile was premiered. This continues in that vein: several rich and complex songs stitched together to make a whole much greater than the sum of its parts. And there’s barely a pause from start to end.

There’s a great story to be told about the collaboration with Scott Bennett and Van Dyke Parks, and the roles that Darian Sahanaja, Paul Mertens and the rest of the band played in putting this thing together and bringing it to London. Let’s have a ‘Making of …’ audio feature on the CD release, please. The end result impresses: it is concentrated Wilsonia, full of emotion and looking back on a life – and an era – in southern California. We’ll need the full lyrics and transcripts to make better sense of the narrative, but it seems clear that the work is a life of Brian, a musical (auto)biography of the highest order.

The Brian Wilson I’m a fan of creates rich and inventive music, complex harmonies, and great melodies. That Lucky Old Sun has all this and more. The question has been asked many times: has Brian got the chops any more? The answer is a resounding yes.


1 Comment »

  1. Late comment I know, but I just came across this whilst surfing after last night’s blast at The Albert Hall (see my blog).
    I was also one of the lucky ones to see/hear “That Lucky Old Sun” last year, though I went on the Tuesday.
    I was blown away by the obviously autobiographical nature of the work and I came out in deep awe that despite all the tribulations Brian has had to endure through the years, the creative spark is as strong as ever.
    I’ve been to all of his tours in the UK (except Glasto) and he gets better every time.
    Do you remember the tension before “Smile” was performed for the first time at the RFH? Would he be able to complete it? Seems ridiculous now, but not then.
    Keep going Brian, and keep writing beautiful music.

    Comment by Gareth Howell — 2 July 2008 @ 11:29 am

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