Greek Theatre, Berkeley, USA
As the evening light shines and temperatures ease into the low teens, drummer John Cowsill walks the surfboard-bedecked stage to begin the oft-sampled drum intro to Do It Again. Throughout the stately outdoor arena the audience rise to their feet (an action that takes up to 10 seconds in some cases) and an announcer and video screen needlessly state; ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Bruce Johnson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, David Marks and…Brian Wilson!’ We go nuts. Do it Again segues into Little Honda, beginning a set with a surprising number of early surf-related tunes Catch a Wave, Hawaii, Don’t Back Down and Surfin’ Safari follow in quick succession. With an average age of around 55, most audience members are what you imagine The Dude to be like today; a little rotund, unflatteringly dressed, generating a thin stream of pot smoke and just happy to be here.
Personalities of the band become quickly clear. Love is the leader and the ‘showman’. His sense of humour works at times (his physical intro to Be True to Your School is accompanied by the sound of creaking wood), and doesn’t at others: ‘Little Deuce Coupe was a song Brian and I wrote about a car I love. I love my new Bentley more though’). Bruce Johnson seems bent on engaging the crowd and is a strong singer - his rendition of Disney Girls is a highlight. Jardine, voice immediately recognisible, is on fine form while David Marks is a deft guitarist and it’s great to see him getting his dues. Wilson of course, is typically static but is feted again and again by the band and the audience throughout the night, despite never responding. With fourteen musicians, including four keyboards and electronics, the source of much of the music is difficult to locate, but it’s the harmonies and hits we’re here for, and on that level there are no complaints.
‘We'd like to take an intermission…followed by a nap,’ smiles Love after Surfin Safari. ‘Instead we'll do a slow dance. This is the first song Brian wrote alone...Surfer Girl,’ which Wilson leads us through a stunning version of before singing Please Let Me Wander. Though his voice is familiar and aching, his intonation is often awry and occasionally crackly. Being Brian Wilson he can be forgiven for anything, but its guitarist Jeff Foskett who takes the high notes and carries much of the vocals.
Don’t Worry Baby, Cool Clear Water, Sail on Sailor, Wilson’s Sloop John B, Wouldn’t it Be Nice and I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times are highlights of the second set by which time vocal cords are limber and the band relax. After video contributions from the deceased Carl (God Only Knows) and Dennis (Forever) Wilson, poignancy almost precludes asking some pertinent questions: Do these songs really need six guitars? Why cover Rock and Roll Music when you leave out Caroline No? Are those distractingly cheesy back-screen projections enhancing the show? But this is a gloriously hammy celebration of some of the finest pop music ever made and the overwhelming sense is one of privilege. And yes, they played Kokomo.