This past Saturday was the conclusion of Brain Wilson’s “Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour” at the Pacific Ampitheatre in Costa Mesa, California. The Tour made a stop in Winnipeg earlier this year.
At first, the tour was only scheduled to run during 2016 (the actual 50th anniversary year) but it was extended twice because it was so successful.
I had a chance to see the Pet Sounds sound check and show at the historic Burton Cummings Theatre on April 15. After the show, I spoke with one of the technicians at an audio board at the back of the auditorium. He told me the tour had gained momentum as it rolled along; he could see the excitement growing within the audiences at each show. I understood now why the tour was extended twice.
At the Winnipeg concert, the crowd was on its feet, clapping and singing to the beloved songs. The orchestra pit of the refurbished theatre was jam packed with audience members (including me) who just couldn’t help themselves and got up from their seats to dance near the end of the show.
The afternoon sound check was a magical experience. Here is what I wrote later that night, after the evening show:
When my friend purchased our cherished tickets to Brian Wilson’s“Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour” show, we were told to expect instructions at a later time about the afternoon sound check.
It was very exciting when we received an email instructing us to be at the theatre no later than 3 p.m.for “check in”.
Arriving at the theatre, there were more than 20 enthused Beach Boys fans in the vestibule near the ticket booth. Our excitement rose even higher when suddenly, live celestial strains of the some of the most beautiful harmonies ever written could be heard from the auditorium.
Singers had begun rehearsing snippets of songs as we waited in a group in the vestibule for all to get checked in. With the recognizable sounds, we looked at each other in wonderment and a collective appreciation that felt like a brotherhood of affection for Brian Wilson and his music.
Within a few moments, we were ushered past the main lobby and into the “velvet horseshoe” at the back of the theatre. It was fitted with velvet chairs, lounge seats, rich tapestry wall paper and shaded lighting – just as it was during the theatre’s heyday as Winnipeg’s foremost, first class performance venue. Band members and singers were now chatting on stage.
I was surrounded by people who clearly loved Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. All around me I could hear excited chatter about what was upcoming. There was no sense of isolation among the crowd as there can be in a theatre full of people.
I wondered if this was much like the Walker’s early days when the opulent theatre was the hub of community engagement and a place not only to see a show, but to socialize.
The bar and snack stands were open and serving to the happy crowd, and beautiful recorded background music bathed the theatre in lovely symphonic arrangements. Each arrangement was in a curiously different musical style – swing, country and western, and more, but – and get this – they were all Brain Wilson and Beach Boys tunes! It was lovely and clever.
The velvet horseshoe had sight lines to the stage. We could see that some preparatory bustle was going on.
When things were ready for us to enter the darkened auditorium, we hushed with expectation. A friendly and helpful attendant told us we could sit where we liked; pictures were permissible but flashes were not allowed; we could move about to take photos as long as we didn’t obstruct anyone’s view.
The stage was lit up as if for the evening’s performance. We took the first few rows of seats in the theatre’s large space that rose to impressive heights. Above the stage was a lavishly decorated proscenium that arched like a fabulously ornamented rainbow.
It all seemed to suggest a sense of wonderment, or the opulence of a medieval king’s entertainment chamber.
A handful of musicians began harmonizing in a circle upon the stage. It looked straight out of the Brian Wilson biopic “Love and Mercy”, where the Beach Boys are harmonizing around a microphone in a California recording studio.
Instantly recognizable was Al Jardine. It was very thrilling, and it felt like they were singing just for us.
Other band members walked casually onto the stage. In between song snippets, the musicians discussed some technical issues. In some way the rhythm of these voices seemed familiar; the banter of a working sound check felt like the many surprises captured on The Pet Sounds Sessions, a 1997 CD box set of the album tracks and other things caught on tape during those creative months from July 1965 into the spring of 1966.
It was obvious the show would present a considerable and intricate light presentation. There were multiple light and sound boards on stage in addition to the usual sound board at the back of the main auditorium – all indicating greater things to come.
This proved to be true. During the evening performance, marvels of sculpted light formed colonnades, moving spirals, and even suggestions of the lavish blinking and undulating neon lights of a 1960’s Las Vegas. The light show interplayed upon the lines of pleated and tied backdrop curtains that rose to the height of the stage. Sweeping curtain lines were touched with delicate brush strokes of light, perhaps a thematic connection to the Pet Sounds album.
In Wilson’s 2016 autobiography, I am Brian Wilson, he writes of the album’s soundscape in terms of a painter’s experience: “…because I had so much time to go down to the studio and try take after take, the musical canvas for that record just got bigger and bigger.”
But during the early moments of the sound check, what seemed most interesting, even mysterious, was a spot at centre stage. There, a lone, impressively white piano stood gleaming in the test lights.
Singers now joined in an a cappella rehearsal of “Surfer Girl”, and moved onto various other bits of tunes and pieces when suddenly and with quick flourish, a fellow with track pants and athletic sneakers walked up to the piano and neatly sat down.
I can’t remember exactly what song he began to play, or if he simply joined into one that was already ongoing, but I can tell you his stroll onto the stage was as casual as buttering a piece of bread – and the band, upon his entry, smoothed in just as easily.
I do recall how it felt. It was like the rising emotional swell of sitting down to a typewriter (laptop) when having an important story to get out.
Oh, and I recall he was wearing those sweat pants, athletic shoes, and his hair was exceptional; neatly parted on the side and groomed back.
I wanted to break out in applause, but I was hesitant in the pure awe of seeing the legendary Brian Wilson.
So I sat silently and quickly peered around at the group. Everyone seemed enchanted and simply sat staring with a collective, laser like intensity at the famous fellow who sat down at the beautiful white piano.
No one dared stand up and move around to take photos from various angles as we could have.
(Swivelling my head back into place, I wondered if my sound check etiquette needed some pointers or, worse, my “cool” factor was a bit too close to zero on the scale…).
The band warmed up with “Salt Lake City” and “Little Honda” and the stage lights began to dance. Then, then, an up running bass line moved into the sweet harmonies of the song that brought tears to my eyes, and my daughter’s hand up to pat my head.
So I say from me to you
I will make your dreams come true
do you love me
do you surfer girl….
Capturing mood and time, I felt how, years ago, it was with “Surfer Girl” that I would (only could) rock my baby to sleep after picking her up from crying in her crib.
With my “little surfer, little one” bundled in my arms and her apple sized head resting on my cheek, we would sway to and fro to the lullaby’s soft sounds in the blue light of the back lane Hydro lamp that fell gently through the kitchen picture window.
And do I hear a hushing sound now as a crescendo has fallen away from a now sleeping shore?
The moment Wilson unobtrusively sat down to the piano at sound check must have been a profound moment for more than just me.
Wilson is a rare soul whose music pulls ideas out the air and then arranges them in an uncanny way to render rare connection; the group seemed as thunderstruck as I.
We sat quietly under the magnificent dome of the 1907 theatre as Brian Wilson and his band played to us, just for us.
backyard laundry lines
for a radiant sun
seem to move us along
from a treble cleffed staff
like a parkland zipline flying song….
in “the warmth of the sun
(warmth of the sun)”(1)
(Written during the days when the sounds of the Beach Boys rang throughout the house along with a new baby’s gurgles and coos!)
(1) Words in quotes from “The Warmth of the Sun” by the Beach Boys
Click on this audio link for Shirley Kowalchuk’s interview with Beach Boys superfan, Shelly Zarudenec: