Brian Wilson, Royal Festival Hall, London

Spirit of Los Angeles brought to London
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The Independent Culture

The sun-kissed environs of California, particularly his hometown Los Angeles, have been a constant creative touchstone throughout Brian Wilson's career, from such basic celebrations of his home state's teenage leisure pursuits as "Surfin' USA", "Dance Dance Dance" and "Fun Fun Fun", through to the more complex appreciations of its mythology that surfaced in the ambitious "Heroes And Villains", further extended through his contributions to the Holland album's "California Trilogy" and his solo debut's "Rio Grande" suite. So when he was invited to create a new piece for the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall, scene of his recent triumphs with the Pet Sounds and Smile concerts, it was to be expected that he should once again gaze out over that smoggy bowl that he loved so much.

The resultant piece, a song-cycle loosely threaded around the spiritual "That Lucky Old Sun", contains a familiar array of Wilsonian musical motifs – the clip-clop percussion, burring baritone sax, poignant French horn, the sun-shimmer of vibes and the sad quack of bass harmonica, to name but a few – as it takes us on a stroll through some of Brian's favourite Los Angeles haunts. Focus is provided by the linking narrative segments written by his old friend Van Dyke Parks, and by the animations and photo-montages used as back-projections – none more poignant than a series depicting Brian and his late brothers, Dennis and Carl, growing up from pimply youths into bearded oddballs.

It's not without its high points – "Going Home" is a nice rolling groove akin to "Do It Again" in both style and subject, "Good Kind Of Love" is another of his uplifting pocket symphonies, and the lovely "Midnight's Another Day" features his own best vocal performance of the evening – though it would be asking a lot for "Forever You'll Be My Surfer Girl" to live up to the expectations aroused by its title.

The latter couple of songs, however, are perhaps the most representative of the show, the first half of which features a judicious blend of crowd-pleasers such as "California Girls", "Good Vibrations" and "Do It Again" alongside lesser-known, thoughtful ballads such as "She Knows Me Too Well" and "Please Let Me Wonder", underrated items from the transitional phase between his carefree surf'*'sand boyhood and the more mature concerns of Pet Sounds. As usual, guitarist Jeff Foskett handles most of Wilson's high vocal parts, but Brian's range can accommodate "God Only Knows" (the song he wrote specifically for his brother Carl) with comparative ease, his occasional catches adding a touching, melancholy edge to the song.

There appear to be even more musicians involved than in previous Wilson concerts, the basic Wondermints band – two guitarists, bassist, drummer, percussionist, two keyboardist/vibes players, and one Brian – being further augmented by the three horns and five string players of the Stockholm Strings & Horns, and the omni-talented Paul Mertens, who wields a vast array of wind instruments, from flute to baritone sax, including several forays on the bass harmonica, during which he resembles a man tucking into a giant silver sandwich. It occurs to me during one of Mertens's many baritone-sax breaks that few pop producers can have employed this huge instrument's louche tone as frequently, or as effectively, as Brian Wilson, just one of a host of innovations with which he transformed pop music.

The musicians are able to accommodate all of Wilson's whims during the "That Lucky Old Sun" suite – from the mariachi horns and Spanish guitars of "Mexican Girl" to the old-tyme clarinet and ukelele of "California Role" – but it's clear from the response to the encores of "I Get Around", "Fun Fun Fun" and "Help Me Rhonda" that Brian will never quite surmount his 1960s successes. But it's to his credit that he's still trying, and still has ambitions worth the trouble.

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