A LABOR OF LOVE, LIVEAnd if you want to findme I'll beOut in my sandbox,Wondering where the hellAll the love has gone.
Playing my piano andbuildingCastles in the sun,And singing Fun Fun Fun.
- The Barenaked Ladies, from their song "Brian Wilson"
Those who have long wondered by what unit of measure a pop song can be deemed extraordinary need only remember this simple test: If Brian Wilson hears it over his car radio and becomes so overwhelmed he has to pull off the road, someone has a very serious hit on their hands.
By Wilson's own admission, the '60s classic "Be My Baby" met this criteria hands-down nearly four decades ago. Today, in the estimation of many Wilson-admiring motorists, getting an automotive earful of Wilson's take on this Phil Spector gem, or any of the other 25 tunes found on his latest disc, Brian Wilson Live at The Roxy Theatre, just may send them over the white line and skidding to a halt on the shoulder as well.
A double-CD of treasures, old and new, distributed via the Web (www.brianwilson.com) on Wilson's own BriMel Records, Live at The Roxy was produced in such a way as to painstakingly recapture the authentic sound of Wilson's studio efforts. As a rare moment of rock'n' roll history forged along the Sunset Strip, it won't be forgotten soon, if ever. And, if, as the Barenaked Ladies have suggested, Wilson has been wondering where all the love has gone, he must have found out when audiences gathered to see him perform during the two shows in April of this year that provided raw material for the disc.
Before we go any further, perhaps it's worth addressing the issue of why on earth Wilson would be doing a live record in the first place. This, after all, is the same Brian Wilson who served as an architect of the studio-mole lifestyle - the cloistered creator of self-described "pocket symphonies" (such as "Good Vibrations") and Pet Sounds, an album considered by many to represent the apex of recording artistry.
"I haven't ever done a live album in my solo career," Wilson simply explains in that unmistakable voice of his. "Actually, it was my wife Melinda's idea. I didn't think it would be a good thing at first. But then I thought about it some more and began to change my mind based upon the interaction available to me with the audience. Finally, I decided to do it, and it turned out fantastic. The album is great."
On the heels of his marriage to Melinda Ledbetter in 1995, and with the critical and popular success of 1998's solo effort Imagination, there is much optimism in Wilson's life these days. This shot of light, where there was once darkness, is more than evident in the stage banter heard between tracks on Live at The Roxy. Laughing, joking and carrying on with the crowd like an overgrown kid with a wry sense of humor he continues to hold in his heart, Wilson exuberantly guides listeners down a path lined with surf and car culture hits ("Surfer Girl," "Don't Worry Baby," "Fun, Fun, Fun"); introspective yearnings ("In My Room," "Please Let Me Wonder," "Lay Down Burden"); offerings from Pet Sounds ("Sloop John B.," "God Only Knows," "Caroline No"); some new material ("The First Time," "This Isn't Love"); rousing anthems ("Back Home," "Add Some Music to Your Day"); and, as an ironic intro to the disc's second set, even the aforementioned Barenaked Ladies ditty, "Brian Wilson."
Beyond Wilson's strong, rejuvenated presence, an equally vital part of Live at The Roxy is his backing band. As a group, the band is an amalgam of Chicagoans first introduced to Wilson while working with producer Joe Thomas on Imagination in St. Charles, Ill., and West Coast denizens including Darian Sahanaja (vibes, keyboards), Probyn Gregory (guitar, French horn, trumpet), Nick Walusko (guitar) and Mike D'Amico (percussion) of the L.A.-based Wondermints. The 10-piece ensemble additionally includes former Beach Boy Jeff Foskett (guitar), Chicago-based Poi Dog Pondering's Paul Mertens (saxophone, flute), Bob Lizik (bass), Scott Bennett (keys, percussion), Jim Hines (drums) and Taylor Mills (vocals).
Given the legendary intricacies of Wilson's music, with its complex voicings, harmonies and sinuously subtle melodic structures, the band members, by necessity, had to double up on many parts. Some play multiple instruments; everyone adds vocals to the process.
"It wasn't always easy," Wilson recalls of his band's efforts to learn the music. "I had to keep drilling them until we got it right. Sometimes it was a weird trip. We just kept rehearsing and experimenting, using different instruments. Eventually, it all came together and sounded fantastic."
Heard playing the live disc's baritone and tenor sax, standard and alto flute and the solo harmonica part that serves as the bridge in "Good Vibrations," Paul Mertens, like most members of the band, is a serious (okay, maybe even a touch obsessive) student of Wilson's music. "We didn't want to reinterpret the tracks," he says of the band's collective goal, "we set out to re-create the spirit and sound of the original recordings as much as would be humanly possible with a ten-piece band."
Wilson took a surprisingly democratic approach to the arrangement and production of his music, essentially leaving the musicians on their own when it came to initially determining what to play. In Mertens' case, he "listened to all of the original recordings in a very detailed way," and then transcribed his individual parts note-for-note, creating charts for each song.
However, these scholarly investigations into the nature of his work proved to be not enough. "At the beginning of`California Girls,' there are these prominent baritone saxophones within the intro playing these weird chords," Mertens relates. "There are at least two, but I can't tell for sure. There are some low trumpets of an unknown quantity as well, so [trumpet player] Probyn Gregory and I picked out single voices we felt were best suited for just the two instruments we had, and the resulting sound turned out to be amazingly accurate."
The band's detective work received an additional shot in the arm when they were given access to a collection of instrumental tracks from actual Beach Boys' sessions, recorded by engineer Chuck Britz in Hollywood's Western Studio 3 during the '60s. "Now we had an instruments-only multitrack record from the old days," Probyn Gregory says. "This material was from the original sessions. You can hear people like guitarists Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco and Billy Strange playing, plus bassist Carole Kaye and drummer Hal Blaine. Armed with this archival material, we could go in and better identify the various instruments used. Beyond that, we talked to people like Hal Blaine, who would fill in the details, telling us`Yeah, I was using a Ludwig set on that one, but I damped the kick drum with a towel.' Based on the recollections we heard, we tried different things, which oftentimes wound up adding even more authenticity to the mix."
Procuring period-authentic gear was another strategy employed in creating the live record's unerring sound. In the spirit of the times, both Probyn Gregory and Nick Walusko outfitted themselves with reissue Fender Twins for their guitar work.
"If I had my druthers," says keyboardist Darian Sahanaja, "I would have had all of the great vintage gear these songs require onstage. But we all know that's not something that's logistically possible, especially in a small club like the Roxy, which only holds 450 people. While I did have a Hammond B-3 up there, I relied quite heavily upon my Kurzweil K2500. Most of the sounds I either programmed in or sampled, taking care to use a bare minimum of factory patches."
Within Sahanaja's sonic library for the gig are authentic harpsichord samples (heard on "Caroline No"), harp samples ("Wouldn't It Be Nice") and a wide range of other acoustic voices needed to reproduce the Wilson aural palette. One of the most famous sounds in Beach Boys' lore - the ethereal and haunting vibrato of a Theramin heard on "Good Vibrations" - found its way onto the live tracks not as a sample, but from an actual instrument designed and built by Tom Polk expressly for Wilson's touring and the live CD.
"Actually, based upon my research into the subject, what we all have generally concluded over the years is a Theramin on`Good Vibrations' was most likely a very similar instrument some called the Electro-Theramin," Sahanaja explains. "The Electro-Theramin was the creation of a Big Band-era trombone player named Paul Tanner, who, frustrated with the Theramin's inability to be played in a note-specific manner, built his own custom box with a volume switch and a needle-pointer, which could be moved along a stationary rod to hit selected notes as indicated by a standard keyboard reference. The original Theramin, which was`played' by moving your hands around the device's antenna-like oscillator, was fine for effects, but a real bear when it came to having to play actual notes with any sense of accuracy. Paul Tanner's mechanical-slide controller remedied this problem fairly effectively, and as a result, his variation of the instrument was widely used in studios around the time Brian was recording`Good Vibrations'."
Tom Polk, a protege of Paul Tanner, was called in to build the Wilson camp's Electro-Theramin-inspired device after a genuine Moog Theramin proved, according to Sahanaja, to be "not quite right." The role of playing the instrument was originally intended for Sahanaja, but shifted to Probyn Gregory when it was determined that Sahanaja just plain had enough to do already. "Not that I don't have my hands full too," Gregory adds. "We all just chip in as needed. The band's overall sound is everyone's concern; there are no egos onstage."
Engineer Mark Linett, who has worked with Wilson for the past 13 years - first on Brian's 1988 solo album, and then on a number of projects centered around Capitol Records' Beach Boys' catalog, including the 30th anniversary and Pet Sounds boxed sets - was the man responsible for committing the live record's tracks to tape. Finding himself hunkered down on both nights of the Roxy shows in a mobile truck supplied by Le Mobile, Linett gathered the sum of both shows' inputs using a meticulously-maintained Neve 8078 console expanded to 48 inputs fed to a pair of Studer D827 digital, multitrack machines.
"I hope that the songs on this CD sound a lot like the original records," Linett said prior to the first night's show on Friday, April 7. "Obviously, everything is live this time around and some of the vocal arrangements have been fleshed-out, but you won't be hearing a reggae version of `Surfin' USA' tonight. Brian isn't trying to reinvent these songs, and frankly, I don't think you can do them any better."
Linett says he kept processing down to "a little limiting on the vocals to keep things in-line," and, for the 2-track monitor mix, "a couple of reverbs," including an AMS RMX 16 unit (on a plate setting for long vocal reverbs), an Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer for background doubling (no electronic doubling was used on the final mix, however), and a Yamaha SPX90 for a short-drum reverb "just to give it a little space."
"What I try to do is get everything on tape as cleanly as possible," Linett says of his general working guidelines. "We're going to mix this later, so right now my concern is just ensuring that the event is properly captured. One of the reasons I like to do live records is because it revolves in no small part around getting the complete sound on tape, as opposed to building a performance in layers. It's a process similar to how Brian recorded the original records, where he'd cut the instrumentation live and then bring in the vocals. There's an energy at work here that's hard to capture in the studio."
On the input side of the Roxy performances, Linett placed full confidence in the microphones within house engineer Rob Mailman's stage plan, adding others only as needed to fulfill his unique recording requirements. A regular among a stable of audio talent retained by Sound Image in Escondido, Calif., Mailman drew up a Shure-dominated stage plot which sent approximately 52 inputs down a snake split; once for the house, once for the monitor desk and a third time for Linett's mobile-recording unit.
With ten performers plus Wilson packed onto the Roxy's notoriously small stage, Mailman, in seeking to keep onstage volumes down to provide better control over the signals arriving at each open mic, outfitted six of the musicians with Shure's PSM600 in-ear personal monitor systems, coupled with the manufacturer's E5 dual-driver earphones.
One of the in-ear recipients, saxophonist Paul Mertens, additionally unchained himself from the confines of the cable by devising wireless miking solutions for his baritone and tenor sax using a Shure dual-channel U4D UHF receiver. After hand-fabricating mounting systems that placed Shure WM98 mics within the bells of each instrument, he employed custom velcro straps securing U1 transmitters to the outside of each saxophone's bell. Tuned to the same channel on the U4D receiver, each transmitter was switched on or off according to whichever instrument Mertens played. Cutting the cord on flute followed a similar path.
For all of the vocals, Shure's Beta 58As were used. On Jim Hines' drum kit, a Shure SM91A was on the kick, while SM57s were stand-mounted for snare. SM98As spanned across rack toms, floor toms and hi-hat cymbals. The overheads stage right and left were Shure KSM32 side-address cardioid condensers. Rounding out the input list were SM81s for Sahanaja's vibes, Beta 57s mounted on Z-Bars for guitar cabinets, and a SM57/Beta 52 combo managing Leslie top/bottom duties.
The mix was done at Linett's Glendale studio, which features a 48-input custom API console with flying faders, as well as an enormous quantity of vintage gear, including one of the original tube consoles that Wilson used at Western Studios in the '60s. "Most of it was pretty good," Wilson said admiringly of his band's and Linett's handiwork. "We had to do a few touch-ups here and there, but that's all. Mixing today is a far cry from my early days. Now we have full control over every instrument, so I don't have to worry about balancing it all live. Going digital is a pretty cool trip, too. I like the clarity of it. But I do miss certain aspects of the tube sound. I might go back to that process; I just might."
To this day, Wilson feels that the most dramatic change he has witnessed in technology was when he went from 4- to 8-track to record "Good Vibrations" in 1966. "Of course, the moves to 24- and 48-track were also significant; but personally, the switch from 4- to 8- had more impact upon me. At the time, that represented a giant leap from the days of 2-track recording."
"Guys like Brian cut their teeth on simpler electronics," Linett added during a contemplative moment before the first Roxy show. "He was tracking in mono for many years, and what's interesting to me is how he used the medium's technical limitations to his advantage. Making great records in that kind of environment, where you could and often did hear as much bass guitar in the kick drum as you would the actual drum; you had to use your energy for more important things, like the arrangement. You didn't worry about soloing this or that channel for snare or hi-hat, you honed in on the composition because that's where the real magic was."
(Editor's note: Brian Wilson is bringing a Pet Sounds tour to venues across the U.S. this summer. Accompanied by the same musicians who contributed to Live at The Roxy, he will additionally be joined by a 50-piece orchestra.)