Friday, September 18, 2015

Review - Brian Wilson & Al Jardine (w/ Blondie Chaplin) - Davies Symphony Hall - San Francisco, CA - September 11, 2015

Mere weeks after catching the opening night of Brian Wilson’s 2015 Summer Tour in Saratoga, CA in June, I was surprised to see that a single, one-off show was scheduled for September in San Francisco. It was a bit difficult to make another set of expensive tickets work, but I couldn’t pass up the chance; perhaps the last chance to see these guys, and almost certainly the last chance this year. What ultimately transpired was that the San Francisco gig was indeed a one-off, and it will be followed by additional shows from October to December, covering areas including the Midwest and South.

Adding to the enticing nature of the show, as if Brian and his band weren’t enough, was the addition of Al Jardine as well as Blondie Chaplin (whose name was added a bit later). Al is on board for all of Brian’s currently-scheduled shows, while Blondie has only been confirmed for this San Francisco show. For this night, Brian was booked at Davies Symphony Hall, home of the San Francisco Symphony. It was also the venue for Brian’s 2004 Bay Area stop on his “Smile” tour. The theater was built in 1980 and is a beautiful, well-constructed venue. It seats about 2700. The only downside (which I’ll touch on later) is that it’s not sonically tuned that well for “rock” concerts.

I decided to go into the city early in the day and do a few “touristy” things. I’m very proud of the Bay Area and all of the unique things to see and experience. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. But honestly, it’s awfully expensive to do anything of note in the city, other than just walk around and look (and even then parking is quite expensive). After blowing too much money near the Fisherman’s Wharf area (we had a good time nonetheless), we made the mistake of driving the one mile or so back towards the downtown area where the theater is situated at about 5pm on a Friday afternoon. I will take full responsibility for the awful timing. But it’s not fun driving through downtown, it’s kind of insane actually, mostly because of the hundreds of bicyclists who, to their credit, aren’t apparently aware that they are constantly about one inch away from having an even slightly distracted driver instantly mow down 50 bicycles before they even know what has happened. It also didn’t help that my meticulous mapping research was instantly rendered useless as the main side street where the theater (and parking garage) is located was blocked off for some unrelated, high-end, outdoor, tented gala event. In any event, I’ll spare any more detail. I eventually made it to the parking garage, where I was actually astonished by how the $15 flat-rate parking actually seemed comparatively cheap.

Davies Symphony Hall is in the middle of numerous downtown landmarks, including most obviously City Hall. It’s a nice, peaceful area once you’re out of your car. The City Hall regularly does a nice lighting motif when it gets dark, and its dome is quite impressive. Waiting in the lobby for the doors to open, I noticed (as I did in 2004, strangely) Nelson Bragg walking around and then talking to some acquaintances before getting them into the venue early. Once inside the outer sort of foyer area (which also provides a multi-level, indoor and outdoor view of the city that is quite impressive), I quickly perused the merchandise stand. As I expected, it was all stuff from the June/July Summer Tour. Frankly, I was okay with this. I snagged a few things back in June, and I was happy to save a few bucks where I could. A poster for the show or something along those lines would have been nice. But the last time I bought a poster at a Brian show that listed cities and dates was 2007. Even the 2013 poster was rather generic.

Inside the venue, I was able to confirm that I did indeed end up strangely with nearly the same seats I had in 2004. The theater is impressive visually, with a huge pipe organ motif behind the stage and hanging lights. Also quite conspicuous are numerous large clear acoustic panels hanging from the ceiling.
Leading up to the show, there were indications the show might not be selling super well. Indeed, this was the second high-priced ticket in the same “market” in less than three months. However, by the time of the start of the show, the floor and first balcony appeared to be 90 to 95% full (I couldn’t see most of the second balcony, but a few photos I’ve seen show that there were plenty of folks up there too).

With no opening act, the band came on stage not too long after 8pm, and went right into the set. While I always hope that the setlist will have something weird and/or new, I fully expected a one-off show like this to stick to the recently-established setlist of the Summer tour. They did indeed do a variation on that setlist, and while I always miss the chance to hear something new, it was still an impressive and wide-ranging setlist, one with a good mixture of styles and eras. Also worth noting is that at least five songs were swapped out from the band’s previous Bay Area show at the beginning of the Summer tour. So I was glad to get some different elements. In addition to the five song swaps, Al took over three leads previously sung by Brian. More on that below.
The band lineup was the same as during the Summer Tour. It looks like Darian may be missing some shows in October, but he made it to this show. The entire band seemed relaxed and sounded good.

The band opened once again with “Our Prayer” and “Heroes and Villains.” As always, they were spot-on and not shaky at all right from the get-go. Matt is really nailing the falsetto parts. “Calfornia Girls” followed, performed impeccably. Brian was in good voice overall, about on par with what he has sounded like for quite awhile. He got a bit whispery from time to time during the show, but it actually made a few of his leads sound a bit more vulnerable.

Al followed with two leads: "Shut Down" and "Little Deuce Coupe." If you check out my review of the 6/18 show, you'll note that Brian sang "Shut Down" and both sang "Little Deuce Coupe" in unison (it kind of seemed like Brian just forgot that it was supposed to be Al's lead). So it was cool to hear alternate leads on these songs, especially since the setlist wasn't otherwise hugely different from opening night in Saratoga or other shows on the Summer Tour.

"I Get Around" followed, and then they once again did "This Whole World" with Darian on the lead, with some help from Brian.

They followed up with "You're So Good To Me", which they didn't do in Saratoga. It sounded fine, with Brian on lead. The band biffed the ending a bit, probably because it was their first show in awhile and this song was only sporadically performed during the summer.

Al offered two of his now-standards for Brian shows: "Then I Kissed Her" and "California Saga: California." These were cool inclusions as well, as neither were performed back in June in Saratoga (he did "Cotton Fields" instead). In fact, when I saw the band in 2013 in Oakland, they also did "Cotton Fields" instead, so this was the first time I got to hear this since the Beach Boys 50th show in Berkeley in 2012. Al as always sounds freakishly youthful and in good voice on his leads.

"In My Room" was next, and Brian played a cool piano part throughout the song, playing in a higher register, evidencing that he does play an active role on the piano during the concert. That was followed by "Surfer Girl."

Matt took his usual vocal turn on "Don't Worry Baby", which often seems to be one of the crowd favorites. Not only is Matt the best falsetto group vocalist the band has had, he also turns in great leads.

"One Kind of Love" was again performed of the new album (which also serves as a plug for the film of course), followed by the introduction of Blondie Chaplin as he joined Al and Brian in singing the lead to "Sail Away." They once again seemed to almost relish and get a kick out of not deciding on precise vocal cues on this song, singing over each other.

Blondie followed with his now standard, barn-burning two-song set of "Wild Honey" and "Sail on Sailor", offering extended guitar solos on both. My only complaint about Blondie is that they haven't tossed him another lead or two to sing while he's on stage.

I was glad to see the return of the "Wake the World"/"Busy Doin' Nothin'" duo. Whereas Brian sang the lead on the former in Saratoga (before Al quickly took over the lead), Al sang it here, and to equally great effect. The band also once again owned "Busy Doin' Nothin'." As I've said elsewhere, no other Beach Boys-related band past or present could pull off a number like that with such ease.

Another difference from Saratoga came in the form of "Please Let Me Wonder", which I believe was only rarely (if ever) performed during the summer. Unfortunately, I think this took the place of "Surf's Up", so I didn't get to hear that one.

Al followed up with a great turn on "The Right Time", followed by Matt's other lead vocal of the night on "Wouldn't It Be Nice."

I think covering the rest of the show would be pretty redundant in light of my review of the Saratoga show back in June. It was the same setlist as Saratoga, and was immensely enjoyable and impeccably performed. The trio of Brian, Al, and Blondie is unbeatable (barring a full reunion of course), and I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity and the means to see them twice this year, and within the span of less than three months no less.

The only technical downside of the show was the sound of the venue. For whatever reason, most likely because the venue was designed, built, and tuned to symphonic shows, the sound was rather muddy. The mix and performances were fine. But the way the sound bounced around the venue led to a somewhat muddy, and slightly cavernous sound. I don't recall the acoustics being quite as muddy back in 2004 for Brian's show at this venue, but that may have been due to the show being a bit more quiet overall, with an opening acoustic set and quieter "Smile" interludes.

The full setlist:

Brian Wilson & Al Jardine (with Blondie Chaplin)
Davies Symphony Hall
San Francisco, CA
September 11, 2015

Our Prayer
Heroes and Villains
California Girls
Shut Down (Al)
Little Deuce Coupe (Al)
I Get Around
This Whole World (Darian)
You're So Good To Me
Then I Kissed Her (Al)
California Saga: California (Al)
In My Room
Surfer Girl
Don't Worry Baby (Matt)
One Kind of Love
Sail Away (Blondie/Al/Brian)
Wild Honey (Blondie)
Sail on Sailor (Blondie)
Darlin' (Darian)
Wake the World (Al)
Busy Doin' Nothin'
Please Let Me Wonder
The Right Time (Al)
Wouldn't It Be Nice (Matt)
Sloop John B. (Al/Brian)
God Only Knows
Good Vibrations
All Summer Long
Help Me Rhonda (Al)
Barbara Ann
Surfin' USA
Fun Fun Fun
Love and Mercy

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