Brian Wilson, Royal Festival Hall, London

More good vibrations
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Brian Wilson, Royal Festival Hall, London

It's not often that a musician gets a standing ovation before he has played a note. But Brian Wilson, erstwhile Beach Boy, composer, arranger, singer and living legend, gets just this as he arrives on stage.

Then he gets another following his opening number, a mischievous nod to the Barenaked Ladies tribute "Brian Wilson" (its refrain, "Lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did", alluding to the three dark years spent in his bedroom), then another after his pre-Beach Boys ballad "In My Room", and another after "California Girls". And so it goes on, for two hours and 30 minutes.

It's only to be expected. In his long and turbulent career, Wilson has written some of the sunniest and the saddest songs pop has ever known. There cannot be a musician in existence who hasn't longed to reach the heights of genius that Wilson attained when he was still in his teens. As his guitarist reminds us: "When this man was 23, he was giving us his 10th album." That album was Pet Sounds which, now regarded by aficionados as the greatest album ever made, is played in its entirety. Thirty-six years on, it's still fresh, life-affirming and desperately sad. Either side of Pet Sounds, we get his greatest hits – "I Get Around", "Don't Worry Baby", "Fun, Fun, Fun" "Surfin' USA" as well as the complex, multi-layered beast that is "Heroes and Villains".

Wilson calls to mind a retired president as he sits, crinkly-faced and smiling benignly in his knitted Stars and Stripes sweater. Installed behind a keyboard that remains untouched, he cuts a frail figure. There's something curiously child-like about him, in the the way he breathlessly thanks us after each song and carves shapes in the air with his hands while he sings. Yet, after decades in limbo, during which he struggled with drug addiction, mental illness and writer's block, Wilson still knows what his public wants. "Good Vibrations" is utterly intoxicating and has members of the audience climbing on to their seats and punching the air.

As for the band, there may be only 10 of them, but they play a whole orchestra's worth of instruments. The flautist is also theclarinettist, saxophonist and harmonica player, while the lead guitarist is a dab hand at the banjo. Their harmonies are exquisite, too – Wilson describes them as his "angels".

This is one of the most significant and moving performances most of us will ever see, one that celebrates and mourns pop's greatest talent. But Wilson is just along for the ride and it's clear he's enjoying himself. "Hooray for us!" he yells at the end of "I Know There's an Answer". Damn right.

Brian Wilson is at the Royal Festival Hall, London (020-7960 4242) tonight, returns only. A version of this review appeared in later editions of Monday's paper