Brian Wilson, Royal Festival Hall, review

imageBrian Wilson brings on the sunshine in his gig at the Royal Festival hall on the weekend.

Brian Wilson is the definition of a musician who should be heard and not seen. In his glory days, he created some of the most gorgeous, inventive and harmonically complex pop music ever heard, its colour and vibrancy in perfect sync with the golden sun-brushed youth of the Beach Boys. Whatever has assailed him, in terms of mental and physical health problems, his musical gifts remain intact enough for him to front a 15-piece band capable of recreating Wilson’s music in its full splendour.

You would be hard pressed to find a more dazzling display of pop genius, with a set of hits to match Paul McCartney’s and a whip-tight virtuoso band to equal Prince’s, but you have to get over the incongruity of Wilson himself, slumped centre-stage, round-shouldered at a keyboard he barely touches, hands hanging uselessly by his lumpen body, barely even moving his mouth to sing his songs of endless summer .

It was a gig of two halves. For the first set, Wilson’s band (led, in effect, by former Beach Boys sideman Jeff Foskett, on vocals and guitar) performed songs from his Reimagines Gershwin album, reinterpreting classics such as Summertime in the style of Pet Sounds. It was an odd mix. They are beautiful songs, more than the equal of anything in Wilson’s canon, and the vocal arrangements were utterly dazzling, with harmonies swooping, bending and meshing in breathtaking fashion.

Yet Wilson’s thin, expressionless voice is not really up to the task of interpretation, especially on songs so familiar from other powerful renditions. Lumpen rock beats and over-precious arrangements eradicated all the jazzy vitality that George and Ira Gershwin brought to the Broadway showtune tradition, and the result was technically impressive but somehow as bland and unemotional as Muzak, like a cocktail band doing Mantovani.

After a break, the band returned to play Wilson’s originals, and it was as if they had shrugged off a straitjacket. Everybody was having fun onstage, released by the pure joy of the music, and soon the Festival Hall had septuagenarians twisting in the aisles, swept away by the spirit of eternal youth.

It was an astonishing show, and, while Wilson himself remained a static and disconnected presence, the aural splendour utterly overwhelmed the visual incongruity, somehow restoring the lost genius at its centre to his gilded youth.

Summer may be over, but Wilson and his band spread a little sunshine wherever they go.

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