Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin

Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin

Brian Wilson and Band
The Stockholm Strings

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 September, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

The visits of Brian Wilson and his band to the Royal Festival Hall have provided some of London’s most memorable performances this last decade, not least the recreation of Pet Sounds (2002) and realisation of Smile (2004). This concert saw its first half devoted to his most recent album – Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin.

Given the go-ahead by the Gershwin estate to sift through a number of songs left incomplete, Wilson settled on two numbers that were duly realised and given a full-band treatment. These were placed at either end of the album as they were in this 40-minute set which was framed by brief though evocative medleys drawing on Wilson’s professed favourite piece – Rhapsody in Blue. As to the songs themselves, The Like in I Love You has a restrained charm while ‘Nothing But Love’ hinted at its originator’s melodic generosity, even if the attention lavished on them rather failed to suggest they are worthy of admitting to the Gershwin canon.

At least they make worthwhile additions to the Wilson catalogue, whereas a selection from Porgy and Bess did neither him nor the songs any favours – an effortful ‘Summertime’ followed by a less than rapturous ‘I Loves You Porgy’, a quirky take on ‘I Got Plenty of Nothin’’ and an overly earnest rendition of ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’. Wilson sounded appreciably more at home in the easeful charms of ‘S’Wonderful’ and ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, though ‘Love is Here to Stay’ and ‘I’ve Got a Crush on You’ suffered from excessively detailed arrangements that stifled melodic potency. The breezy take on ‘I Got Rhythm’ and lyrical warmth of ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ were more effective, though here – as throughout the set – a sense of Gershwin vocal lines fitted to archetypal Beach Boys arrangements was seldom far away. ‘Brian Wilson Appropriates Gershwin’ might have been a more truthful title for a project that was met with mutedly enthusiastic applause.

What Gershwin and Wilson most have in common is the ability to define an era in music, and the 90-minute second half gave full rein to the latter’s achievement in an extended ‘Best Of’ that has few peers; the same being true of the nine-piece band that has stayed loyal to Wilson during this ‘Indian summer’ of his career. The ante was upped from the outset by the indelible introduction to California Girls, followed by the verve of Dance, Dance, Dance and the poignancy of Wendy. A scaled-down backing for Surfer Girl perfectly suited its wistful longing, while Catch A Wave and Surfer Moon (both from the Surfer Girl album) found Wilson delving into his back-catalogue with two lesser gems that highlighted the band’s all-round prowess. The aching Please Let Me Wonder and feel-good vibe of All Summer Long preceded Don’t Worry Baby, in which Jeff Foskett handled the falsetto to perfection; while, after the fizz of Do You Wanna Dance? and louche nostalgia of Do It Again, the irrepressible groove of Darlin’ provided an effective showcase for the vocal talents of Darian Sahanaja. I Get Around seldom fails to please, while the majestic Add Some Music (from the still underrated Sunflower album) was a reminder of Wilson’s unrivalled ear for vocal harmonies.

With its whimsical turns-of-phrase, Imagination (from the eponymous 1998 album) was another welcome revival, as was Going Home (from 2008’s That Lucky Old Sun, surely destined to be Wilson’s last collection of original songs) with its luminous instrumentation and breathtaking a cappella breaks. Scott Bennett gave his all to a coursing rendition of Sail On Sailor, then a Pet Sounds selection brought forth the (instrumental) title track, followed by Sloop John B, Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ – Foskett again taking lead vocal – and God Only Knows in which Wilson gave his best vocal contribution of the evening. An ingenious take on Heroes and Villains was a reminder of its still-startling innovativeness (timely in view of the long-heralded appearance of the Smile Sessions set that should be out before Christmas), before Good Vibrations rounded off the main set in an extended version which further underlined the peak of inspiration Wilson had attained 45 years ago.

The customary rock ‘n’ roll sequence now doing service as an extended encore, Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode provided a springboard into Help Me Rhonda before Fred Fassert’s Barbara Ann made way for Surfin’ USA and the inevitable Fun, Fun, Fun. Throughout this sequence, the band was at its incendiary best while Stockholm Strings proved as adept in the dance as in the playing department. Wilson took up bass guitar on most of these numbers, as he did in the years before his retirement from live performance in 1964, and it perhaps matters little if his role is now more a master-of-ceremonies than bandleader as such.

Time for one last appearance, as Brian Wilson took the stage for a soulful account of Love And Mercy (from his 1988 solo album) and bid the audience to drive home safely. These concerts may well prove to be his final appearances in the UK: in which case, both he and his band will have gone out on the high this music warrants.

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