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LIVE AT THE ROXY THEATRE (Brimel/Oglio 1001) [2000]

In early June, 2000, I drove up to what Rolling Stone called “the sleepy burg of Easton, Pennsylvania,” to that town’s State Theatre for the debut performance of Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds Tour with “a full-scale symphony orchestra” (quoting RS again).  

It was an impressive night, with the orchestra taking the stage first for an epic, 30-minute “overture” composed by Van Dyke Parks from an extensive review of Brian’s Beach Boys hits. RS’s Bill Crandall gushed, “The gorgeous, epic construction proved that Wilson is not only one of America’s finest songwriters but that he has more in common with Gershwin than Simon.” (How ironic that a year later Brian Wilson is touring with Paul Simon.)

The orchestra then left the stage and Wilson’s band came on. This ten-piece aggregation – which has remained Brian’s band through several tours and on his July 4, 2001 TNT special – includes the four members of the Wondermints and Poy Dog Pondering’s Paul Mertens on saxes and flutes. Falsetto master Jeffrey Foskett is joined by female ensemble vocalist Taylor Mills for a tight vocal top end. But nearly everyone in the band sings, creating the full rich vocal harmonies which are a trademark of Brian Wilson’s music. The musicians traded off instruments in a variety of combinations – including a number of keyboards and guitars – allowing them to faithfully and flawlessly replicate Brian’s ’60s arrangements.   Brian came in last, sitting down behind an electric piano, stage center. The audience erupted in cheers and calls of “We love you, Brian!” Brian seemed to enjoy it, but at the same time seemed a trifle embarrassed by it. He coped with “Thank you!”s and several jokes which seemed spontaneous at the time.

Both the music and its performance was stunning. I’m an old Beach Boys fan, and I’ve seen them live both before and after they turned into an oldies band, and I have to say that Wilson’s band was better. They gave every song a spirited and joyous performance, and they played and sang with real conviction and depth. They carried Brian on their shoulders. Not that Brian was not himself up to par, vocally, but on many songs he sang lesser parts and let others carry the melody. (For the most part his electric piano playing stayed within the band’s ensemble, but at one point he stood and picked up a bass guitar to play for the duration of that song.)

After a solid set of nearly an hour by the band, they took a break and the orchestra returned to the stage, joined by the band, to perform all of the album PET SOUNDS straight through, including the instrumentals, in the album’s original sequence. (At the midpoint, Brian announced, “Now, here's side two!”) 

Crandall concludes his report: After the performance of PET SOUNDS, “all remained for a fine reading of PET SOUNDS’ sister song ‘Good Vibrations’ before disassembling. Wilson and band then returned sans orchestra to play more favorites like ‘I Get Around,’ ‘Surfin' U.S.A.,’ ‘California Girls’ (which Wilson called the Beach Boys’ best record), and ‘Love and Mercy’ (a song he promised would make the audience members ‘feel love in [their] tummy’) over the course of another set and two encores. Brian Wilson, the man who once couldn’t be dragged on stage, now has a helluva time getting off. And his audiences’ tummies are the better for it.”

During one of the breaks between sets I found, on sale in the lobby, copies of a new, 2-CD album, LIVE AT THE ROXY THEATRE. I bought one and listened to it on my drive home. Recorded on April 7 and 8, 2000, in Los Angeles the album almost (except in the actual sequencing of songs) duplicates the band sets I saw at the State. Its two discs run a total of about 95 minutes (not the “two hours” blurbed in some reviews) and each covers one set. I was struck by both Brian’s warm presence and the fact that virtually every “Thank you!” and joke had been duplicated in the performance I saw. (In September 2000 I saw Brian – without the orchestra – in San Diego, and he was still doing the same jokes and finishing his songs with “Thank you!” in exactly the same way. Obviously he’s developed this routine to deal with the audience which loves him but makes him uncomfortable.)

The album was then available only at Brian’s live shows and from his website – but it is now available nationally in stores, presumably through Oglio (Brimel is the merger of Brian’s and his current wife’s first names, and is occasionally rendered as “BriMel” to make this point more obvious).

As such, it’s well worth getting for anyone who has enjoyed either Brian Wilson’s prime years with the Beach Boys or his subsequent solo efforts.   Here Brian performs not only his hits (and others’ as well: he does a great version of “Be My Baby” and gives credit to Phil Spector when he introduces it; he also uses the Barenaked Ladies’ “Brian Wilson” to introduce “’Til I Die”) but several new songs as well. “Lay Down Burden” struck me as lyrically awkward, but “The First Time” and “This Isn’t Love” have their moments – and it’s nice to see Brian still writing new songs.

The recording is excellent, and the performances match. Rather than a tired set of retreads, Brian Wilson has given us two lively sets of vitally fresh music – and reminded us all over again of how good his best songs really are. From the innocent rockers like “Surfer Girl” to the “mini-symphony” masterpieces like “Good Vibrations,” and not overlooking stone classics like “I Get Around” and “Don’t Worry, Baby,” Brian Wilson gave us music that summed up a decade – the ’60s – and may live forever. This album certainly enhances their longevity. It’s recommended to all Brian Wilson/Beach Boys fans.


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