The past week has been particularly good for live performances, at least those over five days of Bluesfest in Byron Bay. Yet my joy at that festival’s many great moments (Rhiannon Giddens, Blind Boy Paxton, D’Angelo, Tom Jones) has been overtaken this week by a great sadness.
It concerns one of Bluesfest’s star attractions, Brian Wilson. The former Beach Boy graced the main Mojo stage in Byron on Monday to perform the Beach Boys’ classic album Pet Sounds as well as other favourites. Wilson has struggled for many years with health issues going back to his most creative period in the 1960s, when drugs and psychological problems took their toll. He has never fully recovered.
Despite that he has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance in the past 15 years, touring the world accompanied by a band, the Wondermints, who lovingly and expertly bring the magic of those great Beach Boys recordings to life. I can remember leaving Sydney’s State Theatre in 2002, when they played Pet Sounds in Australia for the first time, completely euphoric. To see those songs performed by the genius who created them was one of those special rock ’n’ roll moments.
Fourteen years on, Wilson’s ability to perform, particularly to sing, has diminished, but, carried along by a festival crowd of 10,000 devotees and the musicians around him, including former Beach Boys Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, the Bluesfest set was a rewarding experience. Not so, sadly, Wilson’s show at Sydney Opera House the following evening.
In this relatively intimate and sonically unforgiving environment, Wilson struggled so badly through the material that from the opening Darlin’ through to the closing Help Me Rhonda, with Pet Sounds in the middle, one could only squirm with embarrassment. The love he inspires brought a standing ovation, but it could not have been for his performance. That he couldn’t remember Chaplin’s name only added to the discomfort.
It’s time for him to stop. Wilson is one of the greats, but his wonderful legacy will be done no service should he continue to perform. It was truly painful to see him grappling with a medium that is no longer his friend. And I say that as one of his keenest firstname.lastname@example.org