Brian Wilson at the Royal Festival Hall

Fred Rowson 20 September 2007

London, September 10th – 16th

Waiting for the shambling figure of Brian Wilson to appear on stage, the audience began to applaud. One of my companions – my perennially cynical next door neighbour, himself only slightly younger than a 65 year-old

Wilson, jabbed his hand and shouted “he’s not even bloody here yet”. And my heart sank. He isn’t going to enjoy it, I told myself. My suspicions were strengthened when a look at the program promised an exciting new composition from Wilson, entitled ‘That Lucky Old Sun’, and they were strengthened further when I saw that this was followed up with ‘(A Narrative).

It’s easy then, to imagine how I felt, casting nervous glances towards the face in the seat next to me, when Brian Wilson loped onto the stage, replete with a dandelion yellow polo shirt and mangy old trainers. The first few numbers – some wilfully obscure early Beach Boys tracks – were a victim of poor balance; the band drowning out Wilson’s croaking vocals. We were then “treated” to a taster of the new material, which was followed up by a member of his band asking “Gee Brian, do ya wannus to do the whole of Lucky Old Sun right now?“, to which Brian waved a Pooh Bear like paw back at him: “Naw, naw,” he replied, “that’s just a little something – the rest of its coming later”. I sank further into my seat.

And then something magical happened. Wilson’s little ticks – hugging his arms around his shoulders, twirling his finger in the air – became, for lack of a better word, lovable (and yes, that extends to the not so subtle checking of his wristwatch halfway through ‘Barbara Ann’). Though hairs rose on the back of my neck during ‘California Girls’, I was not prepared for the lump that was to rise in my throat during the performance of what he introduced as “the best song I ever wrote” – the pocket symphony, ‘God Only Knows’. All of this was only somewhat marred by the 50 year olds in the audience and their sudden desire to get up and wiggle their hips. I’m sure I could hear my companion silently screaming to all 300 of them “Sit down, you’re spoiling it for everybody else!”

Thankfully, this display was laid to rest with the debut of ‘That Lucky Old Sun (A Narrative)’. While this was nowhere near as good as the performances of ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘Heroes and Villains’, it had its moments. The lows were thankfully irregular. The ‘narrative’ part, for example, was quite poor and accompanied by, literally, an iPhoto slideshow of kitsch (but not good kitsch) California lore. At the piece’s height, however, a song titled ‘Midnight’s Another Day’, Wilson got as close as he could to the perfection of his earlier work. As he sang the words to the chorus: ‘All these people make me feel so alone”, even he seemed to realise that he had something quite special on his hands.

The encore was a cover of the Beatles track ‘She’s Leaving Home’, which was given a surprisingly upbeat treatment, and though some considered that this rough and tumble interpretation of the Beatles’ most moving piece to be a step too far, I thought it rounded off the evening effectively. As we left, my companion nodded quietly to himself: “very well done”. Though Wilson seemed to shy from the audience’s screams of praise, I feel that “well done” was something of an understatement.

Fred Rowson