Brian Wilson doesn’t sing much anymore, and when he does, it’s a pained croak.
He rarely touches the piano he sits behind onstage, either.
While he appears to reasonably enjoy being in front of an audience, his gaze often wanders or locks into a faraway stare for a few moments.
But that hardly matters when you’re BRIAN WILSON and you’re giving your masterpiece album, “Pet Sounds,” one final spin around the world.
Wilson, 74, long ago lost the range and texture in his voice and he recites lyrics more than he sings them. But buoyed by a spectacular nine-piece band – including Beach Boy Al Jardine –Wilson’s music is able to be recreated to stunning perfection.
The purpose of this grueling tour – Wilson and the band just returned from Iceland earlier this week – is to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Pet Sounds” by playing the 36-minute production in its entirety.
Upon its release in 1966, the album was practically a flop. Lyrics that expressed fears and sadness and uncertainty were such a radical departure from what the Beach Boys had symbolized to that point. “Pet Sounds” baffled record executives who just wanted to sell a million copies of “Fun, Fun, Fun Part 26.”
But Wilson’s genius couldn’t be contained. Oh, right, and he accomplished this at the age of 23 (with a big assist from lyricist Tony Asher). Think of what you were doing at age 23. Probably not creating one of the greatest albums in pop history.
At the Fox Theatre Friday night, Wilson leaned heavily on Jardine and his son Matt, a multi-talented musician and gorgeous vocalist who frequently shared songs with Wilson, often jumping in mid-lyric to scale a high note.
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “You Still Believe in Me” and “I’m Waiting for the Day” showcased not only precise replicas of the layered, angelic harmonies that trademarked so many Wilson compositions, but also flutes, chimes, sleigh bells, xylophone – all somehow perfectly interlocked.
Side 2 of the “Pet Sounds” album launched with “God Only Knows,” in its day, the B-side to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” There’s a reason Paul McCartney has said its one of the few songs that reduces him to tears every time he hears it – it’s the perfect marriage of sumptuous melody and tender lyrics. And even though Wilson’s voice is now broken when he sings it, there’s something particularly meaningful in those cracked notes.
A couple of times during the “Pet Sounds” set, Wilson seemed to apologize to the crowd for playing the album in its entirety, assuring them that they’d “be rockin’ out” soon.
Anyone bothered by this segment of the show might want to do some tour research before buying a ticket next time.
Wilson’s band kicked into overdrive on the Latin-tinged title track (“When you hear these drums, you’re gonna flip!” Wilson said excitedly at the start of the song), nailing a series of crescendos.
However it was the closing ballad, “Caroline, No,” the final rumination on “Pet Sounds” that lingered as Wilson abruptly got up from his piano and shuffled offstage while the song faded.
The encore was, indeed, the time for fans to hoist their wine cups and dance in the aisles to the quivering sounds of “Good Vibrations” and shout along to “Help Me, Rhonda” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
But there can hardly be any complaints considering that Wilson and Co. opened the show with a 45-minute set that included “California Girls,” “I Get Around” (with flawless harmonies) and a spotlight moment for MVP Matt Jardine on the lush “Don’t Worry Baby,” a song with a perky beat that belies its melancholy.
One-time Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin popped out a few times throughout the night as well (“I hope you enjoy his singing – he’s a really good singer,” Wilson said by way of introducing the spindly guitarist), adding his grittier rock tone and a stinging guitar solo to “Wild Honey” and injecting a bluesy strain into “Sail On, Sailor.”
Even thought Wilson clearly cannot carry a show on his own and he’s surrounded by top-tier talent, he is still the master, the creator, the centerpiece of a bygone era in pop music that will always be worth celebrating.