Brian Wilson
Carolina Theatre, Durham
Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015

Brian Wilson and his ensemble were ready at 8 p.m. last night, even if some of us hadn’t taken our seats yet. By 8:03, though, having missed the opening benediction of “Our Prayer,” I was properly situated, gazing at a towering figure in popular music and reveling in the elusive glory of the line “Sunnydown snuff, I’m all right” in Wilson’s wondrous mini-symphony “Heroes and Villains.”

The evening was full of moments like that—pauses with which to marvel again at words, harmonies and choruses that are completely familiar and yet endlessly beguiling.

Wilson’s songs require a complex inventory of musical instruments—the usual rock setup, but also French horn, several species of saxophone, theremin, flute, harmonica—as well as skilled players. The songs require a crack drummer and a busy percussionist, and almost everybody has to sing. At one point, eight out of the 11 people onstage were harmonizing. Despite technical demands, the vibe in Durham’s Carolina Theatre was loose and fun. The musicians appeared to be having the time of their lives, an understandable reaction to backing up Brian Wilson.

Wilson’s story is a redemptive one, as the troubled genius behind the Beach Boys fell off the grid for nearly two decades only to return to music and performing unexpectedly in the early 2000s. At 72, with a swept-back and full head of gray hair, seated behind the grand piano at center stage, he projected gentleness and humility. Wilson doesn’t give his songs the genius treatment, even when he settles into his crown jewels. “Here’s a really pretty ballad,” he said by way of introducing “God Only Knows,” which Paul McCartney called the greatest song ever written.

But there is only so much Brian Wilson at a Brian Wilson concert. He sang lead vocals on about a quarter of the set’s 32 songs. For the others, he relied on talented sidemen, most notably Al Jardine, one of the original Beach Boys and the only one not related to Wilson. Looking dapper in a light-colored suit, Jardine added his distinctive, reedy-toned voice to early classics like the hot-rod ode “Shut Down” and “Dance Dance Dance.” Blondie Chaplin, a South African musician and a member of the shifting Beach Boys lineup during the 1970s, cut a louche Keith Richards-like figure and injected some rock vibes. Chaplin sang his best known Beach Boys vocal, “Sail On Sailor,” and gave Wilson shoulder hugs that seemed to catch the maestro by surprise.

Drawing upon a legendary songbook that is now more than a half-century old, Wilson has the luxury of picking and choosing. We heard the first proper song Wilson ever wrote, “Surfer Girl,” which the Beach Boys recorded in 1962, along with two from this year’s No Pier Pressure. The early surf songs were well represented, too, notably in a medley that served as the show’s encore and had the crowd on its feet, enunciating the damnably simple choruses of songs like “Help Me Rhonda” and “Fun Fun Fun.”

In a night of many highlights, the weird and wonderful instrumental “Pet Sounds” stood out, especially the song’s otherworldly guitar tone, which was summoned with exactitude by Nicky Wonder. The band occasionally attained the satisfying crunch of heavy rock, especially on “Wild Honey” and a mind-boggling version of “Good Vibrations” whose juddering underbelly had me quaking.

While more recent songs may not have delivered the supreme thrills, they were received appreciatively. And when Wilson reached the line “I feel alive again” from the new “One Kind of Love,” the crowd erupted in rapturous applause. It was a poignant, gratifying sentiment coming from a man who had been down and out for so long. And while Wilson chose his moments to take the spotlight, it hardly mattered. The songs are the stars of the show, and the songs are all Wilson.

The evening’s final number was quietly stunning. “Love & Mercy,” a hymnlike creation from 1988 that served as the title of last year’s biopic about him, showed that Wilson’s voice is still a kind of marvel, with its distinctive, rounded tone intact. Hearing the song’s message of empathy and compassion, it was hard not to think of the outside world. The sentiment was made manifest in the plainspoken new verse that Wilson has added to the song, presumably in response to Paris: “I was sitting in my room, and the news comes on TV/A lot of people out there getting shot, and it really scared me.”

And then, the chorus: “Love and mercy, are what you need tonight/So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight.”

It felt like a blessing. As I exited, the smiles on the faces of my fellow concertgoers told me that Wilson’s message had been well received.