E. J. Thomas Hall
|Great music from another unlikely combination.|
In need of a palate cleanser after three nights of heavy-duty classics, Mr. Culture ventured south for another odd pairing, this time of pop stars: Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck. The genre was wildly different, but the number of parallels were striking, starting with two seminal figures who represent distinctly different strains of their art.
Brian Wilson, 71, may not have invented surf music but he was its foremost practitioner, the driving force behind The Beach Boys and writer of most of the band’s big hits. He single-handedly revolutionized rock ’n’ roll with the group’s 1966 album Pet Sounds, and after a long series of personal setbacks, reemerged in the early 2000s as an honored elder statesman of rock with a new solo career.
Jeff Beck, 69, is one of the greatest blues-rock guitarists who ever lived, and the only one still on his feet turning out fresh material and playing blistering concerts. As good as Clapton and Page and arguably as inventive as Hendrix, he is a musician’s musician, as likely to unveil an arrangement of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” as he is to play a screamer like “Eternity’s Breath.”
After Beck joined Wilson in the studio earlier this year to work on the latter’s forthcoming album, they decided to tour together. Actually, “together” is a bit of a misnomer; each plays a separate set with their own bands, sharing the stage only for a few songs. Still, those provided some of the best moments of the night.
Wilson played the first set, seated at a piano in front of an 11-piece backup band that included former Beach Boys Al Jardine and David Lee Marks. Everyone else either played multiple instruments or sang in the high Beach Boys register, or both. The band was sharp and the harmonies were pitch-perfect, up to four voices at a time carrying the melody and another four or five providing the lush, deep backgrounds that characterize Wilson’s best recordings. He took the lead on several songs and sounded surprisingly good.
The most satisfying songs were from the Pet Sounds/Smile era – gems like “Heroes and Villains” and “Sloop John B,” and self-confessional classics like “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Those expanded the vistas of pop music when they were released, and are still marvels of craftsmanship that reveal the higher possibilities of a simple form. Wilson’s 20-song set gradually devolved into early hits like “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Help Me, Rhonda” – the least interesting music, though predictably what the audience liked most.
Jeff Beck always travels with a smokin’ hot band, and this one includes a classically trained violinist, Lizzie Ball (concertmaster of Nigel Kennedy’s Orchestra of Life); Swiss guitarist Nicolas Meier, who brings Mideastern flavors to the music; jazz drummer Jonathan Joseph; and Canadian bassist Rhonda Smith, who has played with a long list of major stars that includes Prince, Beyonce and George Clinton.
Beck and his band were tight, though comparatively restrained. Given a full night, the players will push the sonic possibilities of their instruments to dizzying extremes, and Beck will rip the very air to shreds with soaring, slashing solos. There were flashes of those pyrotechnics, but in the limited time and format the emphasis was on tasty covers of rock icons like “Little Wing” and “A Day in the Life,” and compelling guitar/violin harmonics on “You Never Know” and “Corpus Christi Carol.”
Wilson and several vocalists joined Beck’s group for three cuts from Smile: “Our Prayer,” “Child is Father of the Man,” and “Surf’s Up.” How to collaborate on such vocally intensive fare? After an a cappella “Prayer,” Beck took over the lead vocal on his guitar, with the singers providing backup harmonies. It was an inspired treatment, retaining the emotional yearning of the music while putting a fresh face on it.
The entire Wilson band returned for the encores, a short jam of Beach Boys hits to send everyone home dancing and happy. And Beck closed out the night with a sweet cover of “Danny Boy,” a brief preview of Wilson’s new album.
It wasn’t Beethoven and Shostakovich. But there was one major advantage: These composers are alive. They can still add new dimensions to their work, particularly in a collaboration like this one. The classical repertoire may be an inexhaustible resource, but it’s frozen in time – monumental, immutable, changing only in interpretation. Music that lives and breathes offers exciting new possibilities, even when it’s rock ’n’ roll. And especially in the hands of two masters of the form.
For more on Brian Wilson: http://www.brianwilson.com/
For more on Jeff Beck: http://www.jeffbeckofficial.com/