Review: Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck at the Greek Theatre

Who'd have guessed that the intersection point in Sunday’s odd couple pairing at the Greek Theatre -- Beach Boys architect Brian Wilson and English guitar hero Jeff Beck -- would turn out to be a lovely expanse of musical landscape somewhere outside Dublin?

But at the end of the night, after Wilson and his skilled rock orchestra played for an hour before Beck and his proficient quintet served up their own set of exploratory rock, blues, jazz and funk, they came together for an all-hands-on-deck rendition of "Danny Boy."


Treacly as that song can be in lesser hands, Beck's mastery of the electric guitar infused a gorgeous tone into the heart-tugging melody, while Wilson matched him goose bump for goose bump with his signature vocal harmonies.

The tour that Wilson, 71, and Beck, 69, have been on together for several weeks began modestly enough. Wilson invited Beck to add his distinctive instrumental voice to a new track Wilson was working on recently, a collaboration that since has expanded into the pair writing and recording several songs. How or when recordings might surface remains to be seen, but Sunday there was clearly a deep musical bond between the two.

In addition to "Danny Boy," their combined three-song set late in the game allowed Beck to  make the doo-wop throwaway "Barbara Ann" live and breathe anew. His work during "Surfing U.S.A." became a master class demonstration in how Beck and his British peers took the guitar-centric template created by Chuck Berry and launched it into the musical stratosphere a few years later.

Originally, the show was to be a return to, and expansion of, the Brian Wilson Band's touring after last year's digression for the 50th anniversary Beach Boys reunion tour. That ended on something of a sour note when founding member Mike Love, who had been granted the sole right to use the Beach Boys name professionally, announced that he was done with the reunion activities and would return to his long-running, scaled-down band minus the services of his cousin Brian, who represents the musical heart and soul of the Beach Boys, or original members Al Jardine and David Marks, who'd been on board for the reunion shows.

Wilson booked the new round of solo concerts with Jardine and Marks along as special guests, then added Beck and his band to the lineup after their studio work had turned out so satisfying for both. Subsequently, Wilson also brought in former Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin, who'd briefly been a full-fledged member in the early 1970s, bringing to the show the services of four official Beach Boys for a small handful of dates.

When the Wilson-Beck tour hit New York last week, Wilson spontaneously decided to perform the entire "Pet Sounds" album, widely regarded as the Beach Boys' crowning musical achievement, then announced that he'd also include it for the hometown crowd when the show reached Los Angeles.

Wilson's portion of the evening began with "California Girls," that wondrous "pocket symphony" he crafted 48 years ago. Next up was a stunning a cappella rendering of "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring" -- the song the teenage Beach Boys sang for Jardine's mother to persuade her to lend them enough money to buy decent equipment and pursue their dream of becoming a legit rock 'n' roll band.

Chaplin then came onstage to sing two songs from the era in which he was part of the band, the soulful "Sail on Sailor" and the psychedelically minded "Wild Honey," and then, with no fanfare, Wilson and company moved into the "Pet Sounds" album.

Wilson has never fully regained the voice that was severely damaged both by his nervous breakdown and years of drug abuse, but it has slowly improved in the decade and a half since he decided to return to live performance. His lead vocal on “That’s Not Me” was uncharacteristically off pitch in the outset, but he regained his footing by the time the set reached “God Only Knows,” on which he handled the lead originally sung by his brother Carl.

He also credibly took the lead on the album closing song "Caroline, No," which earned him a standing ovation from the capacity audience for one of the masterpieces of pop music that was created just a few miles away.


Following a four-song mini-set of Beach Boys hits -- "Good Vibrations," "Help Me Rhonda," "I Get Around" and "Fun, Fun, Fun" -- Wilson ceded the stage to Beck.

With his signature shag haircut, a white sleeveless shirt under a dark vest, black pants and motorcycle boots, Beck strapped on his ivory Fender Stratocaster and  opened with "Eternity's Breath/Stratus," his four-piece band including violinist Lizzie Ball, who helped him emphasize a John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra jazz-rock fusion sound in "Even Odds," from his 1999 "Who Else!" album.

World-music threads also were woven into guitarist Nicholas Meier's flamenco-like intro to the Hendrix classic "Little Wing." The first meeting of the two camps came when Wilson brought his band out for "Our Prayer," the wordless choral opening from the "Smile" album that led into an instrumental reading of "Surf's Up," Beck showcasing melodic beauty and tonal color over any gratuitous guitar histrionics.

Wilson and his bandmates added whimsical train sounds as Beck and his group powered through the Muddy Waters blues standard “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” Beck’s set concluded with his exquisitely haunting version of the Beatles' “A Day in the Life,” demonstrating again the power of music to reach more deeply than words can ever go.

And there was the common ground: music for music's sake. Wilson is primarily a composer who has relied on lyricists including Love, Roger Christian, Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks, and his gift first and foremost has been one of melodic and harmonic invention. Beck in his career has demonstrated time and again that emotional expressivity trumps technical fireworks every time.

Good vibrations, indeed.


Follow Randy Lewis on Twitter: @RandyLewis2