Friday, April 17, 2015

Review - "Brian Wilson and Friends - A Soundstage Special Event" Blu-ray

I was quite surprised a few weeks ago to see that the WTTW PBS website, home to the station that produces the "Soundstage" show, was already selling various packages including a DVD of Brian's "Soundstage" show. The show has just started airing this month on PBS stations, so I was surprised to see a longer version of the special offered so soon. Initially, the website only offered what purported to be a DVD of the show. Soon after, they clarified that the release is a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, which is GREAT news!

It appears this release will be "exclusive" to PBS (meaning presumably the website and most likely as a PBS pledge drive "gift") until November at least. So I would advise picking this up. The website offers several packages, including packages that include concert tickets. I went with the $30 package (plus $10 shipping!) that includes a signed copy of the Blu-ray/DVD set, and a completely superfluous copy of the "standard" 13-track edition of the "No Pier Pressure" CD. In a nice move, they've had Brian sign in the inner card insert to the set. Perhaps I'll use the cover from this superfluous CD to put in a frame alongside the autograph or something. In any event, I essentially paid $40 to get the Blu-ray of this show (with the autograph as a nice little extra bonus). Packaging nerds will want to know that the combo pack comes in a cardboard "digipak" style case, with a plastic tray for the two discs. The digipak is DVD case height rather than Blu-ray height, which may annoy super-nerds who want all their Blu-ray discs to match when shelved.

Let's get the video and audio quality stuff out of the way first. I'm of course reviewing the Blu-ray here. On the audio side, the disc offers a 24-bit PCM stereo (2.0) track, as well as a DTS-MA 5.1 track. Both sound just fine. I can't complain and can't offer much excessive detail. Joe Thomas produces and directs the "Soundstage" show, and this like his other shows I've seen look and sound excellent. On the video side of things, we of course get a nice pristine HD picture. On a few occasions, the picture slightly jitters. This doesn't seem to be a camera issue; but perhaps some sort of mastering or compression issue. It only happens on rare occasions for a few seconds, often during a busy moment on screen, and it's only worth mentioning in that it would probably keep me from giving this a full "10" on video quality.

Let's get to the contents! The main "feature" includes the majority of tracks from Brian's show in Las Vegas this past December. The tracklisting: 

Our Prayer (w/ Al)
Heroes and Villains (w/ Al)
Sloop John B. (w/ Al)
Dance, Dance, Dance (w/ Al)
Good Vibrations (w/ Al)
This Beautiful Day (w/ Mark Isham)
Runaway Dancer (w/ Sebu)
Don't Worry Baby (w/ Sebu)
Marcella (w/ Blondie, Ricky, Al, and Billy Hinsche)
Wild Honey (w/ Blondie, Ricky, Al, and Billy Hinsche)
Sail On Sailor (w/ Blondie, Ricky, and Al, and Billy Hinsche)
Sail Away (w/ Blondie, Ricky, and Al)
Half Moon Bay (w/ Mark Isham)
Don't Talk (w/ Mark Isham)
Saturday Night (w/Nate Ruess)
Hold On, Dear Brother (w/ Nate Ruess, Blondie, and Ricky)
Darlin' (w/ Nate Ruess)
On the Island (Studio, w/ She & Him)
God Only Knows (Studio, w/ She & Him)
The Right Time (w/ Al)
Wouldn't It Be Nice (w/ Al)
Help Me, Rhonda (w/ Al)
All Summer Long (w/ Al)
Fun, Fun, Fun  (w/ Al, Blondie, Ricky, and Sebu)
Guess You Had To Be There (Audio Only, under credits and interview)

I have to say, considering they always end up cutting some songs, they did a great job of including most of the most interesting songs from the show. Al sits in during most of the set, although he exits during the other "guest" spots. Brian still handles some of his leads, handing the lead over to Al for part of "Sloop John B.", and having Al sing "Wouldn't It Be Nice", in addition to Al's other regular leads. 

The show overall is refreshing and relatively full of energy. There has always been something just a bit sterile and reserved about Brian's stage presentation. Not just himself, but having the huge backing band on stage. This band is about the music, not showboating. I've always loved that about this band, and Thomas has produced a show that strikes the perfect balance between that attention to detail and also having a colorful, lively stage presentation. Thomas' direction is straightforward as well, without hyper quick-cutting. The direction and editing is perfect for such a show, managing to move around to shots of the entire band, but doing so at a proper pace. The backing band sounds great as always. Brian "Ike" Eichenburger is the falsetto guy on the show, but he is augmented on and off throughout the show with Matt Jardine. Having both guys along with the rest of the band sounds great. It's sounding like Matt will be the guy on the 2015 tour, and I'm excited about that, but I would love to see both Ike and Matt together.

Brian sounds as good on this show as he is ever going to on a live video presentation. They've done their best to polish Brian's performance up. There may be a bit of post-production work with his voice. But on the whole, everything sounds live and not futzed with after the fact. Al sounds AMAZING on the show. His voice shines, providing that key "Beach Boys" sound to the backing vocals, and delivering amazing robust and youthful sounding lead vocals for a guy past 72 years of age. 

Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar are a great addition. Ricky stays in the back drumming on his songs, and sounds just fine. His presence and the importance of having four guys on stage who recorded "So Tough" and "Holland" is the key. Blondie sounds cool on his vocal turns on "Sail on Sailor", "Wild Honey", as well as his bit on "Sail Away." I have to say "Sail Away" steals the show among the "new" songs on the album. It's a solid composition, and having Blondie, Al, and Brian all trade off on lead vocals. Blondie (and Ricky) are in a supporting role on "Hold on Dear Brother", but you can tell Blondie in particular likes resurrecting the track. 

Mark Isham's trumpet work is just fine. I'm not that big on trumpet wankery. He just has a small part on 'This Beautiful Day", while he is featured more prominently on the pleasant instrumental "Half Moon Bay." His most enjoyable work probably comes with his turn on the "Pet Sounds" track "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)." 

Sebu Simonian and the band offer a live take on the electronic-laden track "Runaway Dancer" that sounds a bit more rocking and organic. Sebu also offers a fine if not super memorable take on "Don't Worry Baby", with only a bit of off-script vocal riffing.

Aside from any Beach Boys, Nate Ruess offers the best guest spot. He has a voice in the higher register, and this helps in singing some songs otherwise likely out of the range of other folks in the band. I find his voice to be pleasant but a bit on the bland side. But he has the range to offer excellent and energetic renditions of three tracks. He first belts "Saturday Night" from the new album, with the entire band offering excellent backing. Then, with perhaps the most ingenious and daring setlist selection of the night (not sure if Ruess or someone else picked it), he brings Blondie and Ricky back out to back him while he offers a performance of the "So Tough" track "Hold on Dear Brother", offering a performance full of gusto if nothing else. Rounding out his set is a nice take on "Darlin'." As with Sebu, he offers a few vocal riffs/ticks that I'm not a fan of, but his voice is attuned well to a song like this.

The show strangely takes a detour for two (possibly partly or wholly staged) studio "peformances" with Brian and "She & Him", featuring Zooey Deschanel. Deschanel has a nice vocal tone, and is one of those singers who is more about tone than epic vocal prowess. We get studio renditions of "On the Island" (off the new album) and "God Only Knows." She fares better with the former.

The set rounds out with more of Al, offering great vocals on "The Right Time" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" (the best Al has sounded on the song in eons!). 

At the last minute literally as the credits roll, they manage to shoehorn in some quick interview bits with Kacey Musgraves while a bit of her track with Brian, "Guess You Had to Be There", plays in the background. 

On to bonus features. There are individual interview segments with the young guest stars. The most interesting "bonus" bits are two additional songs: "Pacific Coast Highway" and "Summer's Gone." Brian does the former solo with his band, while Al joins in for the latter. They offer faithful renditions of these tracks from the 2012 Beach Boys reunion album. 

Simply put, this is easily the best *looking* live video presentation we've ever gotten from Brian, and it's probably the best content-wise as well outside of his "Smile" and "Pet Sounds" sets (and on those, the music and performances are great, but the stage and video presentation are a mixed bag). It offers a good mixture of Beach Boys and guest stars. This is easily a must-own.

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