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!

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