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Celebrating Brian Wilson


Started in 1989, MusiCares is a music industry service organization with the stated mission “to ensure that music people have a place to turn in times of financial, medical and personal crisis.” The foundation has been very active in the field of addiction recovery, as well as helping musicians whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Katrina and various other efforts to help musicians through tough times. In addition to year-round fund-raising efforts, around the time of the Grammy Awards, MusicCares selects a Person of the Year (based on their charitable work and music career) and stages a concert as a benefit fundraiser. It’s always a good-time, good-vibes event, a chance for musicians to give something back to their profession. Now, some of these concerts are starting to come out on DVD, including this excellent 2005 concert honoring Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson.

As is typical of these sorts of all-star affairs, the range of acts is extremely broad, ranging from country singer Shelby Lynne to the rockin’ Red Hot Chili Peppers. One thing that’s a little bit different, perhaps, than many “tribute” outings is that Wilson’s own group is the backup band, so these folks really know the music they’re playing—this is no pickup group playing off hastily prepared charts. I’ll be the first to confess that I’ve never heard of anyone in the band, but, man, can they play—boasting multiple guitarists, keyboardists, percussionists and singers, they are able to reproduce even the most complex Wilson arrangement verbatim. When you think about it, Wilson would probably not accept anything less, perfectionist that he is.

Actually, the first group on the DVD eschews the Wilson band. The Red Hot Chili Peppers do a note-for-note copy of “I Get Around” as just the foursome, and they nail it—the harmonies are just about perfect, Anthony Keidis does a solid Mike Love–style lead vocal (while still retaining his Peppers persona) and it’s great seeing Flea jump around while laying down the song’s thumping groove. An auspicious start to the disc, for sure.

Not surprisingly, most of the songs the artists selected to perform are big Beach Boys hits, but there are a few semi-obscure choices, too, including the second track, “City Blues,” which comes from a 2004 Wilson album called Gettin’ In Over My Head. On that CD, Eric Clapton lays down a blistering lead; here, it’s Bon Jovi axeman Richie Sambora shredding most righteously. Another less-known choice is “When I Grow Up to Be a Man,” which the Backstreet Boys handle beautifully—passing around the lead vocal and harmonizing brilliantly. (I always forget what superb singers they are.) “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” gets the John Legend soul treatment, and while his version lacks the poignancy of Wilson’s own (which always sounds so wistful to me), it does take the song to a new place rather than just copying the original. Earth Wind & Fire offer a lovely mellow take on “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” a minor tune in the Wilson canon, but a nice change of pace here.

The majority of the artists on the DVD succeed in grafting their own personalities onto Wilson’s music, while still remaining faithful to the source. I was not familiar with the British singer/pianist Jamie Cullum before this—he and a gospel mini-choir (Fred Martin with the Levite Camp) turn in a splendid take on “Sail on Sailor”; one of the highlights of the disc. Michael McDonald and the late Billy Preston head a soulful reading of “Don’t Worry Baby.” And Jeff Beck, of all people, works his Strat magic on a pair of songs: “Surf’s Up” and “Surfin’ USA” (the latter given the full whammy bar explosion near the end). Shelby Lynne and Darlene Love stick close to the originals on “Surfer Girl” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” respectively, but still inject some life into each.

For the last quarter of the disc, though, it’s Wilson and his band commanding the stage. It’s astonishing how the group is able capture every nuance of such complicated, multilayered tunes such as “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations,” but I guess you could say that Wilson created this group with those songs specifically in mind. (I will respectfully disagree with Wilson’s ongoing insistence on singing the “original” lyrics for “Good Vibrations” rather than the better-known ones—it robs the song of some of its cathartic power). Wilson still cuts a slightly strange figure onstage, though he seems more comfortable now than, say, 10 years ago (to put it mildly). Clearly, performing a lot the past few years has aided in his long recovery from the inner demons that have plagued him for decades. (Kudos to the organizers of the show for allowing Barenaked Ladies to sing their song called “Brian Wilson,” a lovely Beach Boys homage that even alludes to “Lyin’ in bed, just like Brian Wilson did.”) The last two songs of the night find the stage crammed with the various singers who had performed during the event, concluding with one of Wilson’s most beautiful post-Beach Boys tunes, “Love and Mercy.” It’s a poignant message to end on, a perfect grace note for a concert about caring.

Next time: Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s Blues From the Backroads and more.

Comments, questions, suggestions? You can write to me at [email protected].