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Live Review: Brian Wilson Plays Pet Sounds at the Fox Theatre


Photo Credit: Paul DeMerritt

A fundamental tension has defined the history of the Beach Boys. On one hand, there’s the Beach Boys that have dominated the radio for the past 50 years—the band that honed a formula for accessible, sun-obsessed anthems behind hits such as “Kokomo.” And then there’s the Beach Boys with Brian Wilson at the reigns, where psychedelia, pop expertise and vivid harmonies play in unison.

Wilson’s performance on Sept. 9 at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta rounded out that tension, thanks to a brilliant cast of musicians and a setlist spanning the best of the Beach Boys’ career. The show was part of the Pet Sounds 50th-anniversary tour, commemorating the lauded 1966 album that cemented Wilson as a brilliant force in the history of pop music. Backed by a 10-piece ensemble, including original member Al Jardine and late-comer Blondie Chaplin, Wilson kicked off the evening with an array of hits, starting strong with “California Girls.”

The fact that the Beach Boys’ heyday was a half-century behind them was obvious. Wilson’s voiced sounded weathered and worn, though still charged with a sort of quiet fire. Thankfully, Jardine’s son, Matt Jardine, was there to dutifully hit all the falsetto notes that have inevitably exceeded Wilson’s range. While the vocal trade-offs between Matt and Wilson underscored the passage of time, it felt more like a playful duet than an admission of defeat.

Like every one of the 32 songs performed during the evening, the first set was immaculate. “I Get Around” and “Little Deuce Coupe” were full of life, as it became clear that every auxiliary musician was a formidable talent in his own right. Chaplin emerged onto the stage at the start of “Sail Away” from Wilson’s 2015 solo album, Pier Pressure. His ferocious guitar playing and commanding stage presence served as a compelling counterpoint to Wilson’s humble demeanor.

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Photo Credit: Paul DeMerritt

When it was time for the performance of Pet Sounds, Wilson had the gall to apologize for the lull in volume, reassuring the audience that the band would start rocking again in about 40 minutes. Wilson’s apologies felt like a funny acknowledgement of the Beach Boys’ tumultuous trajectory and the different demands of its audiences.

Hearing the first guitar flutters of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” felt like the start of a journey that was too special to be real. Pet Sounds has become more than a perfect collection of songs. It’s a living textbook for anyone seeking to understand the development of pop music and the nuanced ways in which it’s evolved over the last few decades. Hearing it live only reaffirmed its importance in the canon of music history.

Physically seeing the ensemble perform the record’s complex arrangements gave a further appreciation for their difficulty, and for the depth of experimentation Wilson organically weaved into his infectious melodies. Just as soon as the stark melancholy of “Sloop John B” faded into “God Only Knows’” angelic harmonies, the understated closer “Caroline, No” signaled that Pet Sounds was over. It’s likely one of the last times any crowd will hear the record performed by its author ever again.   

The optimistic aura of “Good Vibrations” quickly eclipsed the sadness of that realization. Wilson, the Jardines, Chaplin and the rest of the ensemble closed out the evening with more faithful recreations of Beach Boys favorites, finally ending the two-hour performance with a spotlight-encased Wilson performing the shimmering ballad “Love and Mercy.”

The concert managed to highlight the importance of Wilson and the entire band’s influence on the shape of contemporary music while finding a comfortable balance between the group’s experimental leanings and pop excess. More than anything, the performance left that rare, lingering feeling that everyone had witnessed the last act from a musician whose influence will outpace our lifetimes.