August 2, 2008

Brian Wilson Lets His Music Do the Celebrating


NEWPORT -- Well, I still don't know what to make of that.

Brian Wilson, the genius behind The Beach Boys and a recluse nearly as famous for long periods of withdrawal and depression as for hits such as -- where do you begin? I guess "Surfin' USA,""God Only Knows" and "Do It Again," just to pick three eras -- opened the Newport Folk Festival last night with a 10-piece band that faithfully re-created his complex masterpieces to an almost eerie instrumental and vocal perfection.

Yet, as is his wont since his return to live performances in this decade, while his dense harmonies and exuberant music exploded all around him, with a compelling reason to celebrate every show, Wilson himself was probably the most impassive performer I've seen on a stage. Sitting at a keyboard that he nearly never played, Wilson seemed to occasionally remember that people around him were having a good time and that he should clap his hands or make some arm motions.

At first it was a letdown. At times it was enthralling, as during the simple devotional to the power of music "Add Some Music to Your Day" ("it's a companion to your lonely soul") or the relatively simple piano ballad "Southern California," from his new disc That Lucky Old Sun, to be released next month.

But mostly it was secondary to the miraculous re-creations of some of the most complex of Wilson's recording-studio imaginings, with massed background vocals (up to eight parts), all manner of chirping, buzzing keyboards and various heavily effected guitars (two sets of vibes and a glockenspiel? That's attention to detail) handling breathtaking bits such as the "Heroes and Villains" suite, the glorious inner harmonies to "In My Room" and the trio of vibes, keys and whistling during "All Summer Long." The sound was pristine as well, allowing everything to be heard.

The encores gave way to the early rock material, such as "Barbara Ann,""Help Me Rhonda" and "Surfin' USA," though finishing up with "Southern California."

And all through it, Wilson sat as though he were the least impressed person of the announced attendance of 1,200 in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Still, the very life of his music, and the fact that he thought enough to bring it back, were perhaps testimony enough to what he was really feeling.

It was an all-Martha's Vineyard undercard, with Kate Taylor's raspy yet elegant voice moving easily from country-rock to soul to '70s singer-songwriter pop with her crack band, and solo singer- songwriter Willy Mason (who'll be back at the festival today and tomorrow at Fort Adams) starting off with a rough-hewn yet world- weary voice singing mostly original songs that combined attention to psychological detail with simple, old-time influenced refrains, with his best stuff sounding new yet classic at the same time.


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Originally published by RICK MASSIMO, Journal Pop Music Writer.

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