Brian Wilson played Christchurch. I was there, and it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to (and I’ve been to a few). An amazing night, one that several of the good burghers of Christchurch assure me will pass into the local collective memory (along with a 70s Santana concert, apparently).
The James Hay theatre in the town hall complex is a smallish venue and must have been quite a change from the Sydney Opera House, but I’m in the third row, slightly to the left of Brian. It is – or feels – intimate, or as intimate as these things get, helped perhaps by the number of people in the audience who know each other. My rock writer mate’s in his element, pointing out David Kilgour (The Clean), introducing me to Martin Phillips (The Chills). The guy who sold me the marble benchtop for the farm kitchen says hello, and Christchurch’s tame Rutles fanatic is immediately indentifiable, front row centre, by his bald patch. (He hadn’t worked out the Beach Boys link, though).
The band are spectacularly good. In the opening acoustic songs, the singing is exquisite, and when they get into the rockier stuff, they really give it some wellie. One guy switches seamlessy between guitar, French horn, trumpet, keyboard and theremin (no, not a leg, sadly). Another looks like a young Dr John. Brian sits behind a Yamaha keyboard reading his lyric and cues off a couple of screens. The keyboard is touched precisely once. If you want a set list, there’s one in this rather emotional account of the Brisbane concert from a couple of nights earlier.
He seems to be running off a script: as if he finds security in the exact sequence of actions and running order. A couple of times he ends songs with an amazing bright smile on his face, only for it to switch off instantly as the band finish. He starts his intros before the audience have stopped clapping and cheering – as if he’s slightly disconnected from events. But whatever his mental state, however he gets through the night, he is most certainly there in the music. And his band obviously love him.
Sometimes the BBs canon sounds thin and weedy to my ears. Great songs, but not a lot of balls. Not tonight. Everything goes better with this band and the volume helps a lot. SMiLe, in particular, gels as a live performance in a way that it doesn’t on CD. Played loud, it makes sense.
Marcella closes the first half. What a song! I’ve been playing the BBs version every day since, but the live version is much punchier.
In the final rock’n’roll section, (Do It Again, Fun, Fun, Fun etc) a theatre full of mostly middle-aged bodies begins to heave. There’s dancing in the aisles. A security guard stands up on the side, nervous at first, then smiles and shimmies a bit. Brian has his bass guitar strapped on, but his fingers don’t seem to do more than they did on the keyboard.
On the way home, I set the iPod to shuffle though a playlist of 400 psychedelic classics from the late 60s (OK: they’re not all stone cold classics, but they’re much more than interesting), and it’s immediately apparent that the new SMiLe is a part of that milieu. Brian must have been as acid-fried as Syd Barrett when he conceived the piece, and it must have cost him some effort to get back there to finish the thing off. If, indeed, he did. I have a sneaking suspicion that chief Wondermint Darian Sahanaja did more than just “assist with the arrangements”, and this article gives some credence to that assertion
But what does it matter? One of the rock‘n’roll greats is alive and well(ish), touring, and delivering performances that reduce grown men to tears. Not me, though. I was reduced to dancing like a madman trying to be cool, and singing, trying to prove that I knew all the lyrics. Good job I didn’t have a mike.