A pivotal scene in the new biopic Love & Mercy takes place in 1964, when Brian Wilson tells his fellow Beach Boys he's not comfortable onstage and just wants to stay home and create magic in the recording studio.
Fifty years later, not much has changed. Performing Wednesday night at Verizon Theatre, Wilson looked uneasy in the spotlight and sounded even more so. His voice often felt coarse and awkward as he struggled to stay in sync with the glorious melodies and arrangements he captured so easily in the studio in the 1960s.
Yet the bum notes couldn't sink a show that was as much a celebration of one man's life as it was a concert. As Love & Mercy makes clear, it's a minor miracle that Wilson is still alive and performing at age 73. Rough edges and all, songs like "Good Vibrations," "God Only Knows" and "California Girls" still sounded like art-pop revelations.
Most of the credit for that goes to Wilson's 11-man band, who replicated his intricate harmonies and musical details down to the last flute and French horn. Beach Boys founding member Al Jardine and sometimes member Blondie Chaplin added lead vocals with hit-and-miss results. But the most valuable player was Al's son Matt Jardine, who nailed the angelic high notes on "Don't Worry Baby" and other tunes.
In lieu of the electric keyboard he's used on past tours, Wilson sat behind a grand piano throughout the show, playing it occasionally but delegating most of the work to keyboardists Scott Bennett and Darian Sahanaja. Spanning his songbook from early hits like "Fun, Fun, Fun" to his current album, No Pier Pressure, Wilson blurted out song introductions and random thoughts.
"There's the end of that one!" he yelled five seconds before one song had even finished.
Despite his choppy performance, Wilson occasionally seemed to be having a blast. "This one rocks like hell!" he screamed with boyish enthusiasm before launching into the Beach Boys' 1967 hit "Wild Honey." During fleeting moments like that, you could see a young Brian Wilson again, at ease with the world and thrilled to be onstage instead of hidden away inside the studio.
Opening the show was another septuagenarian musician who's the subject of a movie: Rodriguez, the legendary Detroit folk singer behind the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugarman.
Performing solo on guitar and singing in a strong, clear tenor, Rodriguez was in high spirits as he mixed his own tunes with Spanish-flavored 1950s standards and joked with the crowd about being an "ordinary legend" compared to Wilson. Sure enough, a female fan interrupted his set and demanded he lead the crowd in singing "Happy Birthday" to her.
He seemed amused but a bit insulted: "Anniversaries are next," he said, his voice dripping in sarcasm.
Thor Christensen, Special Contributor