Brian Wilson's concert Saturday at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles coincided with his 73rd birthday, and for the occasion several of his children wheeled an oversized cake onstage, a bounteous bouquet of balloons (courtesy of actor John Cusack) floated at the back of the stage and the Beach Boys' creative leader delivered a set with musical surprises.
There were no presents per se for the birthday boy to unwrap, but there was one important gift that Wilson tacitly gave to nearly 6,200 fans packed into the theater: quite possibly the most engaged, vocally assertive and present person he's displayed since fitfully returning to live performance more than a decade and a half ago.
Wilson came across during the 1-hour, 45-minute show as happy to be where he was, which hasn't always been the case in his concerts. Sometimes he appeared to be fulfilling an obligation or even a therapeutic necessity — something like a trip to the dentist — to help exorcise some of the demons he famously battled: the emotional and physical abuse from his father, Murry Wilson, his own nervous breakdown, drug abuse and more psychological torment during the years he was under the care of controversial psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy.
CLASSIC ROCK: Follow us on Facebook
Despite all that baggage, Wilson always has exhibited pride in the joyful music he created decades ago with the Beach Boys, and he obviously still enjoys spending time in the recording studio, his home away from home, as evidenced by the solo albums he's released periodically.
On Saturday, however, Wilson led proceedings from a bench at a white grand piano — in place of the electronic keyboard he's often used in concert — which immediately telegraphed that he was musically home again. He surveyed some of the most musically and harmonically adventurous and creative pop music ever written.
For this tour, the Brian Wilson Band that's been backing him since 1999 includes Beach Boys founding member Al Jardine, who sounded strong and energetic as ever when he took lead vocals on "Help Me, Rhonda," "Sloop John B" and a few others.
Wilson also happily shared the spotlight in several songs with South African guitarist-singer-songwriter Blondie Chaplin, who joined the Beach Boys for a time in the early 1970s and remains best known for his muscular lead vocal on the group's 1973 hit "Sail On Sailor."
There was also a cross-generational guest spot for Capital Cities singer Sebu Simonian, who sings on Wilson's latest solo album, "No Pier Pressure." It was somewhat surprising and briefly distracting when Simonian was bequeathed the lead vocal for "Don't Worry Baby" and throughout the song had to look at the teleprompter at his feet. What self-respecting pop geek, especially one who lives in Los Angeles, would sit in at a Brian Wilson concert and not have that lyric etched in his brain?
Stepping into the band to handle the stratospheric high harmonies that once were Wilson's domain and that in recent years had been handled by singer-guitarist Jeffrey Foskett came Jardine's son, Matt, to extend the family-tradition feeling that infused the proceedings.
Wilson opened with his glorious a cappella masterpiece "Our Prayer" from the fabled "Smile" album and then went into "Heroes and Villains" (just as he does on the album he belatedly completed in 2004, 37 years after shelving "Smile").
From there the show held a plethora of Beach Boys cornerstone songs — "California Girls," "Good Vibrations," "Little Deuce Coupe," "In My Room," "Surfer Girl," "Surfin' U.S.A.," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "God Only Knows." The set also included some deeper tracks such as "She Knows Me Too Well," which gave Matt Jardine one of a couple of moments in the spotlight, and "This Whole World," which generously shifted the lead vocal to longtime Brian Wilson Band keyboardist-singer Darian Sahanaja.
Beyond the musicians on stage, the show also subtly paid tribute to the Los Angeles studio musicians who eventually came to be called the Wrecking Crew.
The Brian Wilson Band's accomplished delivery of so many inspired instrumental touches those session pros added to the group's recordings highlighted the deliciously melodic and propulsive bass line Carol Kaye created for "Sloop John B," the rhythmically inspired drum part Hal Blaine brought to the same song and so many other contributions that elevated each record and helped to expand the boundaries of what rock music could sound like a half-century ago.
And of course there was no shortage of the vocal harmonies that were and continue to be Wilson's gift to music.
Does it matter whether no one, including songwriter Van Dyke Parks, can provide a literal explanation of his lyrics for "Surf's Up" that Beach Boys singer Mike Love famously complained about during the "Smile" sessions? When seven, eight or nine voices combined to weave the musical tapestry in which Wilson set those words about "columnated ruins domino," it rose to the level of any of Bach's greatest choral compositions.
FOR THE RECORD
June 22, 1:50 p.m.: In an earlier version of this review, the lyrics "columnated ruins domino" were inadvertently changed to "culminated ruins domino."
As he usually does these days, he closed the show with "Love and Mercy," the song from his 1988 debut solo album that provided the title for director Bill Pohlad's new biopic about Wilson. The movie has received both raves and pans, but the song remains a thing of beauty, capturing the childlike wonder that's at the heart of so much of Wilson's music. ("Love & Mercy" costar Cusack was in Chicago but sent the balloons as well as a giant birthday card positioned to the side of the band that read, "Brian Happy Birthday — Love Ya Brother — Johnny Cusack.")
Who else could sing a line like "Oh the loneliness in this world, well it's just not fair" and not only get away with it but sound utterly convincing?
To invoke a lyric from Wilson's chief rivals and source of musical inspiration, the Beatles, "We're glad it's your birthday. Happy birthday to you."
Another fragile pop music survivor opened the show: Detroit musician Sixto Rodriguez, whose career was rejuvenated largely from the 2012 Academy Award-winning documentary "Searching for Sugar Man."
"I love you, Sugar Man!" a female voice shouted early in his 50-minute set. "I know it's just the drink," he replied sweetly, "but I love you too."
His part of the show brought the phrase "low key" to a new level, his solo acoustic guitar accompaniment to his lyrically inventive songs more the stuff of coffeehouses than outdoor amphitheaters.
But Rodriguez's humble personality, engaging and sometimes pointed songwriting and his arresting outfit — black leather pants, shirtless vest, tuxedo jacket, sunglasses and top hat, out of which his curly black hair spilled — created an endearing stage persona, even suggesting what guitarist Slash might have become had he taken the fork in the road toward folkie singer-songwriter path rather than hard rock.