Brian Wilson squinted through a blue spotlight after he finished singing his new ballad "Lay Down Burden" Wednesday at the Rosemont Theatre here.
The song was inspired by his brother, Beach Boys member Carl Wilson, who died early last year. "Lay Down Burden" is about seeing through the haze, confronting redemption--and gathering the strength to move on. Wilson and co-producer Joe Thomas wrote the song in California the day they learned that Carl had cancer.
"Lay Down Burden" was received with a standing ovation from the 4,000 fans (including Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan) who filled the nearly sold-out theater to witness the second show of Wilson's first-ever solo tour.
Wilson's frequently stirring performance was all the more moving for longtime Beach Boys fans because few thought they'd ever see Wilson onstage, considering the highly publicized personal problems that have long kept the legendary musician out of the spotlight.
Wearing an untucked black polo shirt, black slacks and black tennis shoes, Wilson spent the entire program singing and playing from behind a small piano. After the warm response to "Lay Down Burden," Wilson told the audience to sit down. He promised he would be "rocking" in five minutes, but first he launched into an angelic version of "God Only Knows"--a song whose original 1967 recording was defined by Carl's tender singing.
Wilson then delivered on his promise, leading his 12-piece band and two backing vocalists through a searing version of "Good Vibrations," the Beach Boys' landmark '60s hit. After finishing the number, Wilson offered softly, "That was quite a record, and we're very proud of it."
It's been quite a year for Wilson as a live performer. His mini-Midwestern tour, which opened Tuesday in Ann Arbor, Mich., and closes Saturday in Minneapolis, is the culmination of another compelling evolution in the life of the 56-year-old artist. (The tour resumes in mid-June in New York before heading to Los Angeles.)
Just last May, Wilson's first-ever solo concert took place at a private recital before 1,200 friends in a high school auditorium near his summer home in suburban Chicago. After that show, during which he was stiff and tentative, Wilson remarked, "It was a shock to walk out there. I had never done it before. It was a scary experience."
Wilson was a little more at ease late last summer when he returned to the high school to tape a Nashville Network special with country singer Deana Carter. But he appeared most comfortable on Wednesday when he was surrounded by a wall of sound.
In a show that was divided into two 40-minute sets with intermission, Wilson's well-rehearsed band offered something for everyone.
The most important element was the L.A.-based quartet Wondermints, who gave Wilson the kinetics to fuel chestnuts such as "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Don't Worry Baby," and "Help Me, Rhonda," the last updated with a hard R&B; shuffle.
The interplay between Wondermints keyboardist/xylophonist Darian Sahanaja and reed man Paul Mertens was intriguing on the innocent "Caroline, No" and the instrumental "Let's Go Away for Awhile."
In an extended live framework, both of those "Pet Sounds" tracks revealed Wilson's reverence for the dissonance and separation associated with lounge instrumentalist Juan Garcia Esquivel. Wilson was framed at center stage by longtime Beach Boy guitarist Jeff Fosquett on his left and current co-producer Thomas, who played keyboards, on Wilson's right.
Near the end of the evening, Wilson turned in spirited versions of such familiar numbers as "All Summer Long," "Barbara Ann" and the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," the last replete with such Phil Spector production signatures as sleigh bells and booming bass drums.
Wilson's gentle falsetto was best served in ballads such as "In My Room" and "Surfer Girl." He dropped into a strange lower register on "I Get Around," dabbling in a growl that was reminiscent of Dr. John. As a pianist, Wilson showed he still has one of the best left hands in rock 'n' roll, shooting across the keyboard with wicked assurance.
At the end of the evening, Wilson stood triumphant on stage--a man who has emerged from his darkest, most paralyzing blue period to again celebrate his music--and the human spirit--for his fans.