Friday, June 26, 2015

Concert Review - Brian Wilson - The Mountain Winery - Saratoga, CA - June 18, 2015 (with Special Guests Al Jardine & Blondie Chaplin)

Brian Wilson, along with special guests Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, put on an impressive and enjoyable opening night show at The Mountain Winery in Saratoga, California.

I made what I can selfishly say is a less arduous trek to Saratoga as compared to having to make it into “the city” in Oakland or San Francisco for Brian’s fourth appearance at this venue high up in the hills of Saratoga (I’ve caught his previous shows here in 2000 and 2007; while missing his 2011 appearance).

Upon arriving, as is always the case at this outdoor venue, I was able to hear some of the band’s soundcheck. After having my ticket scanned, my first order of business was a visit to the merchandise stand. Disappointingly, there was not a great deal of tour-specific merchandise. A good hunk of the merch consisted of items already previously sold online, including autographed copies of the new album, and an, erm, not-too-flattering pencil sketch-style poster of Brian. My usual fare is a tour poster and program; neither of those were made for this tour apparently. Beyond that, there were tour-specific clothing items (shirts, hoodies, hats), and a tote bag. I went with the hugely overpriced hoodie (not quite as exciting to buy it right now, as I won’t often need it for months) and the hugely overpriced t-shirt (I went with the black t-shirt with the “No Pier Pressure” album cover on the front and tour city names on the back). I at least like to get something that lists tour dates and/or cities; there were only a few of the shirts that had this. Did I just drop $100 on a shirt and hoodie? Yes, yes I did. Financially irresponsible, but I go to few concerts these days.

The day was pretty warm, and the venue requires a few steep walks to get through the parking lot and up into the entrance path. Cut to myself and my significant other paying $12 for two bottled sodas. Neither my girlfriend nor myself are much in the way of drinkers, but we were almost ready to buy some booze just to make the overspending somehow more worth it. But we just went with sodas, and took a walk around and ended up in a spot looking down on the stage and seating area. Blondie was sitting in the front row casually, and was jokingly heckling the folks on the stage, at one point calling out for Al to do a guitar solo. Cue the always-overzealous Mountain Winery staff telling me I was watching a “closed soundcheck.” I simply demurred rather than pointing out that the soundcheck was already over, and that we were simply standing in front of one of the venue’s food shops, and that it’s a freaking open-air venue where the entire lobby/foyer area literally overlooks the actual stage/seating area, where a “closed soundcheck” is literally impossible and the venue chooses to open the area up two hours before showtime. I thought about offering to “un-see” the 30 seconds of non-musical soundcheck, but that sounded way too smartass.

Steep, death-defying drive and over-priced food notwithstanding, one can’t help but admit the venue and location are beautiful. I’ve never been a fan of the slightly stuffy, aloof vibe this venue sometimes attracts. It didn’t help when the still somewhat quaint, homegrown vibe the venue had was partially done away with in 2008 when they remodeled the concert area, turning it from a rustic old winery building with folding chairs and bleachers to essentially a mini-outdoor shed/amphitheater. But the audience at the show was, with a few exceptions that always exist, not stuffy at all, but a healthy mixture of older fans and the younger indie hipster crowd. Also, while the venue has been slightly oddly “modernized”, it’s still a *very* intimate venue that really still doesn’t have a bad seat. I also usually prefer outdoor venues, especially smaller ones, as the sound can breath and doesn’t have the cavernous, muddy sound that some indoor venues offer.

We scuttled to our seats, and I was surprised how relaxed the atmosphere was. I’m sometimes overhyped for the few concerts I go to, arriving way too early and sitting in my seat way too early. But we enjoyed our drinks up above, and then headed down to our seats early, but not too early. I paid for the top tier tickets, again not financially the best decision, but I really haven’t been to much of any non-Beach Boys related gig in the past six or seven years at least (in other words, apart from an odd club gig here or there, my expensive concerts have been essentially the 50th anniversary show in Berkeley in 2012, Brian in Oakland in 2013, and this 2015 show), and was pleasantly surprised with how close to the stage and how centered the seats were.

As usual, I saw several band members as well as Blondie and Al milling around on the sides of the stage. The opening act for this tour is Rodriguez, most well-known for being the focus of an academy award-winning documentary a few years back. To the best of my recollection, this is the first time I’ve seen an “opening act” for Brian. On two other occasions (2001 with Paul Simon and 2013 with Jeff Beck), Brian did joint tours and opened the show. Not being particularly used to opening acts for Brian, I had no expectations for the Rodriguez set. He came on and performed solo on guitar, and it was quite enjoyable. He did what appeared to be some of his well-known tracks and a couple of slightly kitschy covers. Interestingly, perhaps due to this being opening night, several of Brian’s band came out and watched some of his set from the wings. Most interestingly, Al came out and watched the entire Rodriguez set from the side of the stage. It was interesting to watch Al watch a show!
A short intermission followed, during which Brian came out and sat off to that same side of the stage. He seemed quite relaxed actually. Eventually, the band all came out on stage and started up. Brian seemed very jovial and animated. More upbeat than I’ve seen him in some time. Al came out immediately with Brian and the band, while I was surprise to find that Blondie only came out during his lead vocal turns (and then again near the end of the show).

They opened with the “Our Prayer/Heroes and Villains” combo, which sounded amazingly tight vocally and instrumentally. I have to admit, the scaled-back band at the NonComm show last month (no Al or Blondie, and minus a couple backing band guys) sounded a bit rusty and shaky, Brian in particular. Not so here. They sounded amazingly sharp, especially for opening night. This was followed up with “California Girls” and “I Get Around”, which seemed to please the hits-seeking audience members (and everyone else for that matter).

I had heard someone else singing the lead to “This Whole World” during soundcheck, and this was confirmed when the band ripped into the song with Darian singing the lead for what I believe is the first time on tour. Brian did take over during the bridge (“when girls get mad…”). Four more oldies followed with “Dance Dance Dance” (dropped after opening night, as of this writing), “The Little Girl I Once Knew” (Al nicely in the vocal blend on this one), “Shut Down” with Brian singing the lead (later shows apparently have Al taking over the lead), and a weird but enjoyable performance of “Little Deuce Coupe” with both Brian and Al singing in unison. My best guess is this was an “Al” lead (he has sung it in the past with Brian), but Brian missed the cue and sang on top of Al. Al seemed amused.

Matt Jardine got his first vocal turn with “Don’t Worry Baby.” This was my first chance to see Matt Jardine with Brian’s band, and he was impressive. I’ve been opining since 1999 that Matt would be the best falsetto guy for Brian’s band. It was so far-fetched of an idea in 1999, but here we are now. With two defections from Brian’s band, Brian has stumbled into the best scenario.

Al was up next with his requisite awesome take on “Cottonfields”, which the band always seems to enjoy playing as well. At this point Brian dug out his old "Row Row Row Your Boat" routine for the audience, which was fun. As I mentioned, Brian was in a good mood. This was followed by the pairing of the two classic ballads, “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl”, which exemplified why Brian and Al (and Matt) are key parts of the harmony stacks for this live presentation.

They surprisingly threw it back to Matt again for “She Knows Me Too Well”, which Brian has for some reason been regularly adding since last year. It’s great to hear Matt sing something other than the requisite falsetto parts and “Don’t Worry Baby”, and he sounds great on this one.

This was followed by the one true absolute surprise of the evening. Announcing another older song, Brian asked Al the key while Al mentioned that he and Brian wrote the song at Brian’s house. They then went into the first-ever performance by the band of “Wake the World”, with Brian singing the lead (later shows appear to have Al taking the lead). They both seemed to be into it, and after went straight into “Busy Doin’ Nothin’”, which was another rarity that Brian has only sporadically added in past years. Al seemed more impressed by the song than Brian himself. Not being hugely into this song over the years (blasphemy, I know), I was surprised by how much I enjoyed watching Brian sing this one. At the end, he “conducted” the band as they did a live fade-out. This two-song pairing was perhaps the highlight of the show in terms of surprise.

The band then shifted into a four-song set of tracks from the new album, starting with Al’s turn on “The Right Time.” Next up was “Runaway Dancer”, which Al again seemed hugely amused by, simply offering some percussion. Finally, Blondie was brought out on stage and joined with Brian and Al for “Sail Away.” The band sounded tight, but it was amusing to watch all three of the guys still unsure of who was going to sing which part of the song. Blondie exited, and Brian introduced “One Kind of Love” as coming from the new “Love & Mercy” film. They’ve lowered the key compared to the album, but still surprised me with a strong rendition of the song.

Blondie came back out again and reprised his 2013 appearances with energetic performance of “Wild Honey” and “Sail on Sailor.” Brian seemed to be proud of how hard “Wild Honey” rocked. Amusingly, Brian went on autopilot and introduced Scott Bennett to sing “Sailor”, after which Scott noted that “the guy who sang the original record is here” without missing a beat, and Blondie offered an awesomely authentic performance. Blondie exited, returning during the encore on “Help Me Rhonda” and staying for the remainder.

Matt took on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” next. He always sounds impeccable on this one, though it would have been nice to see Al take this one on. They rounded out the main set with “Sloop John B” (Al on lead, with Brian only on the last “poor cook” verse), “God Only Knows”, and “Good Vibrations.”

An encore followed, which ran through the more or less standard encore Brian has been doing for some time, give or take. They ran through "All Summer Long", seguing immediately into Al's "Help Me Rhonda", then the classic "Barbara Ann/Surfin' USA/Fun Fun Fun" run, and then back to closing the show as Brian did in past years with a piano/vocal rendition of "Love and Mercy." For some strange reason, either Scott or Darian sang the final few lines solo without Brian. Not sure if that was planned.

So, overall impressions? Excellent show, very high energy. Al adds a great deal to Brian's show, even when he isn't given a lot of lead vocals. Matt Jardine is the perfect falsetto guy for this band, and it's interesting to see him also take on some background guitar work for the first time. Blondie was a great treat to see again, as I did in Oakland in 2013.

The only downside I can see is that the show was still a bit shorter than past tours (joint tours excepted of course; this show *was* longer than the 2013 Beck show), and the setlist didn't incorporate a ton of mindblowing, new stuff. I would have also liked to see Al sing more leads (subsequent shows have seen Al taking a few of Brian's leads as mentioned above). I was also surprised that, as in 2013, Blondie only came on during his vocal spots and stayed off the stage otherwise apart from the encore. But all of these complaints are cases of wanting MORE of something the band does so well, so I can't help but say this show and tour are quite successful and enjoyable.

I can only hope this lineup continues to do touring at least now and then. I will definitely do my best to see them again when or if they play in my area.

Verdict: Highly Recommended!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Film Review - "Love & Mercy"

I recall one reviewer snarkily opining back in 2000 that “ABC will apparently make a Beach Boys movie every ten years until they get it right.” This was in reaction to the clunker that was the 2000 miniseries “The Beach Boys: An American Family”, as well as 1990’s “so-bad-it’s-funny” TV movie “Summer Dreams”.

Thankfully, when 2010 rolled around, we weren’t subjected to another hack TV movie full of fake beards and “edgy” references to Charles Manson.

Some 15 years later, we have the very different, and in every way superior film “Love & Mercy.” To even discuss the film in the context of those TV movies seems rather ill-advised. The film has little in common in any way with those older films. The context that those older clunkers do give to “Love & Mercy” is that fans finally have a “biopic” (a term reviewers all seem to agree is not really the right term) that is actually art, and that fans don’t have to be embarrassed about or hope that it’s so bad that it can at least get a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” treatment.

Director Bill Pohlad has taken what many learned fans would agree is the correct approach: He doesn’t try to shoehorn in a very dense, dramatic 50-plus year history of Brian and the Beach Boys into a two hour film. Rather, Pohlad has tapped two different actors to play Brian during, for the most part, two key periods: The 1966-67 “Pet Sounds/Smile” period, and the 1986-1992 “Landy Years” period (which are more or less condensed into a year or so). These year markings are rough; years are rarely if ever mentioned (and are especially jumbled during the “Landy” years), and the narrative does touch on some periods outside of these timeframes.

I purposely stayed away from reading a ton of detailed reports of the film during or after filming, as well as detailed reviews of the film once it started getting screenings. I obviously knew the basic setup and all of the general details. But I went into this film relatively “spoiler free.”

As many have noted, the film constantly jumps between the two “time periods”, and this is done quite effectively. I took a non-superfan with me, and they did not have any problem following the narrative. While this film isn’t a traditional “biopic” and is certainly about emotion and ambience and atmosphere, it isn’t any sort of experimental, mind-bending film. I mean this in a good way. It’s art, and it’s unconventional for a “biopic”, but it’s not some avant-grade lump of nonsense. It has heart and emotion and is easy to digest.

Paul Dano plays the “60’s” Brian. Dano easily provides the best portrayal of Brian on film to date. They’ve done a good job of giving him the right “look”, with an appropriate hair style and numerous wardrobe nods to known photos of Brian and in general a good eye towards wardrobe and set design (for both time periods). Dano also offers a nuanced, sympathetic portrayal. He’s sometimes weaker and emotional (when confronted by “authority”), but also has periods of self-confidence and actual forward-thinking thoughts that don’t just reek of hippie-dippie nonsense. He also portrays Brian’s eccentricities with sympathy. One of the keys of the writing and Dano’s performance is that the film delineates the different aspects of Brian’s odd behavior rather than lumping it all together: Sometimes he’s just odd because that’s his personality, his eccentricity. Sometimes his odd behavior is due specifically to his emerging mental illness including auditory hallucinations, and at least once, his odd behavior is motivated (or amplified) by LSD.

Dano also does a good job of portraying Brian’s awkward, not always particularly actually funny, but earnest sense of humor. What about the rest of the actors during the 60’s period? Pretty much everybody else takes a backseat. One thing this film does have in common with the other films is that Al comically barely registers. I’m not sure he even had a line in “Love & Mercy.” Even the guy playing “Bruce” got a line or two. Carl and Dennis play a slightly more prominent role, being positioned alongside Brian in several key scenes. Their respective actors provide a solid service, providing the needed mixture of brotherly love, concerned bandmate, and conveying just how young all of these guys are.

As for Mike, the character who has the most potential to stir controversy (both within the film and among film-watching fans), the film actually handles Mike quite well. He’s not pushed all the way to the side; he figures as prominently if not moreso than anyone other than Brian among the band members. The film truly handles Mike as well as it possibly could. Needing to portray that Mike did have misgivings about the new musical direction of the group, the dialogue provides direct references from Mike to those misgivings. But they are done as organically as possible, and the viewer, even grizzled fans who know the full story of the group in all its gory detail, can actively empathize with Mike at several points. At one point, after Mike has helped Brian write the lyrics to “Good Vibrations”, we see Mike in the control room watching Brian spend hours perfecting the short cello parts to the song. Eventually, Mike explodes in a half-serious, half-comical moment, telling Brian they’ve spent hours on the part. This is the stuff one can empathize with.

Murry Wilson gets a few scenes. I wouldn’t even call it a weakness in the film necessarily, but Murry seems a bit shoehorned in. Apart from a more surreal bit near the end where many eras of Brian’s life converge (you’ll have to see that for yourself), Murry mostly has two key scenes in the film. In one, Brian is trying to get Murry’s opinion on “God Only Knows.” Here, we get a requisite brief bit of exposition explaining how Murry had been their manager and had been fired, etc. In another scene, Murry tells Brian about selling the song publishing catalog. The filmmakers seem to be juxtaposing Murry in the 60’s with Landy in the 80’s, and this isn’t an unfounded comparison.

Van Dyke Parks gets a few scenes, although a bit more explanation of his and Tony Asher’s roles (Asher pops up briefly as well) might have helped. In one scene, Mike offers some pretty direct criticism to Parks during a “group meeting” in Brian’s pool. It’s probably a bit more on the nose than it needed to be; Parks is essentially fired on the spot in the scene (and/or quits), literally walking away in a huff. But scenes like this, while having to compress the expositional dialogue, also provide some great symbolic moments, as Brian is positioned away from the rest of the group at the deep end of the pool, insisting everybody come over to his side.

Where the film also succeeds is its actual depiction of music. Too often, music-related films (as opposed to actual musicals) often tend to skip past the whole crux of the thing: the music itself. Thankfully, “Love & Mercy” isn’t just two hours of people *saying* how much of a musical genius Brian is. The film shows and tells us, through a number of meticulously recreated studio scenes. For once, a film has done its homework and provides not only all of correct, age-appropriate studio gear that nerds will recognize, but also uses both vintage and new recordings to meld the footage and music together and truly make the whole thing seem credible. I’m not sure what Academy Award this aspect of the film should get (Set design? Costumes/Wardrobe? Art Direction?), but it should get a nomination if not a win for whichever award is applicable.

As for the 80’s? John Cusack provides a portrayal of a mid-late 80’s Brian that may be visually less accurate (although, as Pohlad has mentioned, Brian’s appearance did indeed drastically change throughout the 80’s; Cusack actually doesn’t look terribly unlike a circa 1988 Brian), but makes up for it with nuance. Cusack goes with some subtle mannerisms and speech patterns that evoke Brian. Frankly, despite Cusack clearly going for a rather eccentric portrayal, he comes across more normal here than Brian actually did in the most of the interviews and public appearances from this time frame that fans have seen. Is Cusack ironing out Brian’s weirdness, or is this a look into the more normal, funny Brian that we rarely get to see? Either way, Cusack effectively portrays the most important aspect of this part of the story: a rather meek, confused, befuddled guy in what is essentially an elaborate version of an abusive relationship. In this case, the relationship is with Eugene Landy. Portrayed by Paul Giamatti, Landy in this film is given the needed sinister gravitas. You buy that Cusack’s Brian cowers before Giamatti’s Landy. Giamatti provides perhaps less nuance. We get less of the subversive, creepy, calm-voiced Landy doing his evil work (though that’s in the film too), and get a bit more of the ranting, screaming iteration of Landy. One can’t help but find one scene particularly tantalizing and awkward, as Melinda hands Brian a hamburger that he starts to wolf down, leading to Landy berating Brian, telling him he only *thinks* he’s hungry. The film surprisingly goes light on Landy overmedicating Brian. The references are made, and we get a couple scenes showing Brian zonked out. Elizabeth Banks plays Melinda, and she serves the important purpose not only within the story of working to extricate Brian from Landy’s control, but also serves as essentially the “viewer”, the sane outsider thrown into the odd world of Landy.

Music plays much less of a role in the Cusack portion of the film, relegated mainly to a quick bit with Brian playing the titular song itself in a scene with Melinda.

Are there “errors” in the facts presented in the film? There is surprisingly little in the way of nitpicky quibbles. A few are there, but the filmmakers keep it to a minimum, and I never felt like something was so drastically altered as to change the meaning of the story. The little nitpicky bits would be mostly related to compressing events within a shorter period of time. They want to keep to the 1966-67 timeframe, so Murry selling the Sea of Tunes catalog gets moved up to 1967. Little stuff like that.

What of the Atticus Ross score? Ross utilizes fragments of many Beach Boys recordings, weaving them in and out of somewhat ambient, electronica-ish musical bits. This isn’t a conventional score with orchestral cues. During the film, I found Ross’ work tantalizing, but also feel like a separate release of the score will allow much more enjoyment (and dissection). A release of the score has been rumored to be held up in the bottomless legal pit known as “awaiting BRI approval”, though Pohlad has recently said they still intend to release it. Let’s hope that happens. In addition to the actual musical content of the musical cues, the overall sound design is quite impressive. Auditory hallucinations and key vintage musical cues swoop around the sound stage. I found the surround mix in the theater I attended was a bit muted. The hallucination bits provided loud, immersive surround effects. But relatively straight vintage music interludes sounded a bit quiet, and stayed in the front speakers. I’m not sure if some of this was due to the theater I was at. The front speakers when playing vintage music could have been louder, that’s pretty much my only complaint.

I’ll leave intricate details at that to avoid even more spoilers. The film is truly a feat, not only as a film piece that finally does Brian justice, but also as a film. Aside from the Brian/Beach Boys story, this is a strong film with effective performances. It never devolves into camp. It is art. I can’t imagine a non-documentary ever getting better than this.

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