Brian Wilson Brings Pet Sounds & More to the Sydney Opera House


Words by John Fisher
Pics by Dan Boud

Love and Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic, came out in 2014. The subjects of this kind of film don’t always love the way they have been depicted, but the first thing he asked the packed concert hall was, “How many of you have seen my movie?” And the crowd cheered.

The Beach Boys have an immense and continuing popularity, but it is not a popularity of the Beatles or the Stones kind. The band’s sounds have survived in our awareness.

Its personalities have not.

I wonder how many people who could recognise fifteen Beach Boys songs would struggle to name a single Beach Boy. The story of Love and Mercy has touched audiences, and led to enough of a resurgence of interest to warrant a world tour and, according to the promotional materials, a “final” performance of Pet Sounds.

Brian Wilson Beach Boys

Brian Wilson was, of course, the musical genius behind the delicate harmonies that set the Beach Boys apart from so many of their more stomp-inducing peers. And Wilson was the creative force behind the sublime Pet Sounds (1966), which removed all doubt that the band could make music that suited sitting better than stomping.

But throughout his career he seems to have gotten a raw deal. Wilson took time off from the band due to mental health difficulties, after which (the story goes) he was manipulated, put out on stage before he was ready, and shoved to the back so his troubles wouldn’t show. The band has cycled through touring line-ups, and has suffered disputes and disgraces. The Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour, seems like a final chance to rectify all this.

Wilson played a 35-song setlist along with Beach Boys co-founder Al Jardine, and featuring one-time member Blondie Chaplin.

Brian Wilson

Performing is clearly no longer easy for Wilson. His voice is not what it once was; he coughed and sounded tired almost from the beginning. At times he would give a signal, stop singing, and band member Matt Jardine (Al’s son) would take over.

The first set included a weary performance of ‘California Girls’ (a bizarre notion) and ‘I Get Around’, then of the less memorable ‘Funky Pretty’ and a song called ‘One Kind of Love’ from Wilson’s 2015 album No Pier Pressure. After the sometimes forced energy of these songs, the quiet beauty of ‘In My Room’ was welcome.

But the best performances of the first set were those on which the band members took the lead vocals. Keyboardist Darian Sahanaja sang ‘Darlin’ with a resounding force, and Matt Jardine’s falsetto on ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ felt more like the Beach Boys than the Beach Boys did. Wilson sat behind a stately white grand piano. Yet his hands rarely touched the keys.

Brian Wilson Opera House

After the intermission, the band played Pet Sounds in its entirety. By ‘You Still Believe In Me’, the second track, Wilson was giving the worrying signal for Matt Jardine to come in. He seemed nervous to begin singing again. But ‘God Only Knows’ was still entirely within his vocal range. The spot lit performance, even if flawed, clearly touched the audience. They gave the song a long standing ovation.

At times the show may have felt more like a tribute show than the real thing. But seeing Wilson felt like the moment at a family meal when you stop and look for a moment at an aged grandparent who sits placid and still at the head of the table. The family talks and they do not hear; the children run by their feet and they do not notice. But if not for them, you realise, none of us would be here.

The recent biopic and Wilson’s Opera House performance gave his loving fans what they wanted. They wanted a chance to see him, even if not in his prime. And they wanted to give Wilson a chance to be centre-stage and to make the personal connection with audience that his circumstances so long denied him.

The last song was he played, and perhaps the last song we’ll ever hear him play, was not a Beach Boys song. It was his own: Love and Mercy.

About John Fisher

John writes music reviews and features for Moshcam. He has written non-fiction for Overland and fiction for Voiceworks.

View all posts by John Fisher

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