As anyone who has seen the fascinating documentary about Brian Wilson attempting to bring his legendary 'lost' album SMiLE to a live venue for the first time ever to the Royal Festival Hall in London in 2004 will testify, Wilson has been a fragile man, wracked with nerves. Years were spent in the wilderness after a mental breakdown brought on by his (often ill-founded) fears and paranoia, plus the usual worst aspects of the drink and drugs rock 'n roll lifestyle. However, beyond all the odds, he not only managed to overcome potentially crushing stage fright to return the live performance with Smile, but the event went down in history as a landmark event. Ever since watching that documentary, I've harbored a desire to see Wilson live. Tonight was part of a short residency at the Festival Hall - prompted by the Hall owners who, having built up a special relationship with the one time Beach Boy, specially commissioned a new work to be premiered on London's South Bank. The resultant work is That Lucky Old Sun (a Narrative).
Now, this isn't the sort of gig that I'm accustomed to. Although I and also curious friends never quite found ourselves happy clapping along (unlike the vast majority) we did stand during some of the upbeat classics - though, if I'm honest, largely to retain a view of the stage. Yet before the end of the evening I found myself with an irrepressibly wide grin on my face and the peculiar but very enjoyable feeling of having been invited to a weekend birthday party at Brian's place. The support band that Wilson has built around himself was impressive. Whilst they never managed to capture the timeless magic of the original harmonies of the Beach Boys they did them proud and although Wilson regularly struggled to hold or even hit his notes he sounded as good as you'd imagine anyone could given his age and the life he's lived.
Unusually, for a gig where the artist is expected to deliver a raft of their old standards as well as serve up the new material, Wilson began with the old stuff. So we got 45 minutes of Beach Boys highlights, followed by a brief interval, before he returned to the stage to present the new composition. The first half was wall to wall hits. California Girls, Wouldn't It Be Nice, Sloop John B, God Only Knows (which Wilson introduced as the song he felt represented the pinnacle of his writing) all rang true to their origins. While the opening notes of Good Vibrations led into a song as sharp as ever at sending a chill down one's spine.
Wilson sat resolutely on a stool in front of his keyboard throughout the evening. Occasionally, slowly turning himself round with one foot, in part to acknowledge his supporting performers and in part as it was all he could manage at his age by way of stage presence. In fact, when he first walked on, he more resembled a lost janitor that the pop legend he is. Sporting a baggy pink polo shirt, blue jogging bottoms and white trainers - it's fair to say that most in the audience were dressed more like they were due on stage than Brian. His occasional sips from a light blue mug (containing what I wondered - tea?) were also endearing, adding to the feeling that we'd been asked to spend an evening with a fun, kindly but musically accomplished old uncle. "Thank you so much ladies and gentlemen for the wonderful applause!" he would say from time to time. Genuinely delighted that folk still loved what he does; though it was clear to all in the sold out hall that there was as much affection for the man as there was his music.
Of course, the real test tonight was whether or not That Lucky Old Sun (a Narrative) would hold its own against such a daunting supporting cast. Thankfully it did. It was what Wilson himself describes as 'A series of four 'rounds' with interspersed spoken word.' During the narrative sequences an eclectic slideshow of family photos, resort postcards, computer animation, sketches and 50s drive-in imagery provided a surreal, yet relevant, kind of pop art visual cut-up to the music. The entire thing was clearly very autobiographical. All the usual Beach Boys subjects were present: hot rods, surfing, California, bikini-clad girls and so on, and the jaunty, upbeat tunes masked the occasional emotionally laden lyrics: "At twenty five I turned out the light like I couldn't cope, but now I'm back...".
A final encore began with a fairly rocking performance of the Chuck Berry classic Johnny B Goode, and which saw Wilson pick up a guitar for the first time. A handful of Beach Boys tunes followed including Help Me Rhonda, Surfin' USA and Fun, Fun, Fun. A satisfying conclusion to an impressive and pleasurable evening's entertainment. A night spent in the company of Brian Wilson is something to treasure. 7/10