Friday, July 25, 2008

Not So Good Vibrations

Lizz and I recently attended a Brian Wilson show at the Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC. The concert, which was billed as "An Evening With Brian Wilson And Friends" was a benefit for cancer research. It was apparently part of series of shows taking place around Manhattan but it was very hard to get any other information regarding who the "friends" were. The show was never even listed on Wilson's official website, though the message board there was ripe with all sorts of rumours as to who would be appearing - the biggest buzz around a possible "ex-Beatle" hitting the stage. I didn't really care too much about all of that - as you may or may not know, I am a huge fan and try to see his show whenever it comes to town. Since Brian has been back I have enjoyed everyone of his concerts, the last one at the Beacon with Al Jardine in tow was an absolutely stellar evening. Because this was a benefit, ticket prices were pretty high, so I went for the cheap seats at a hundred dollars a pop, expecting to have a great time for a good cause.

For those who haven't seen Brian Wilson in concert, the experience can be a bit shocking. His band - based around a group called The Wondermints and featuring ex-Beach Boy Jeffrey Foskett - is flat out incredible. Super musicians, excellent vocalists - most who double (and triple) on a variety of instruments allowing them to truly deliver Wilson's music in all its sonic majesty. Brian sits center stage behind an unplayed piano. Sometimes he rocks along to the music, other times he just sits there staring off into space. If it weren't for a number of interviews where he has stated that he is enjoying his return to the concert stage I would be creeped out by it all - but if he is having a good time, I'm all for it. His voice has gotten stronger over the past few years, though he occasionally flubs a lyric or two.

I had read on the message boards that a few of the band members were not going to be at the show. It's a big band, with a big sound and I wondered how they were going to deal with the changes. The regular drummer (there is also a second percussionist) and bass player were not going to be there, as well as the 1st keyboardist and the one lone female member who sings - as does every member of the band. Wow! How did they pull this off? Simple! The second keyboardist - who usually gets behind the drum kit at the end of the show for the big "rock and roll" medley - played drums. The guy who plays almost every instrument during the night was on bass for the evening. Although two strong vocalists were lost for the evening, the band more than covered all the harmony parts. Like I said, this is an amazing group of musicians.

Even so, it was obvious that some things would have to be dropped from the set and that meant sticking to the hits for the night. Even so there were a few gems, including a great verision of "Add Some Music" from the "Sunflower" album, a spot on take on "In My Room" and two new songs from the upcoming "That Lucky Old Sun" release, which could be the first truly great new release from Wilson (if you don't count "Smile" as new). The band compensated for the missing members with a high-energy performance - almost manic - blasting through the songs almost Ramones-style. Brian, who had been ill for the last few shows, looked great and was more animated than I had ever seen him - sometimes almost giddy.

Our $100 seats were majorly suck-ass. Practically in the lobby, when I looked to my right I noticed that we were actually behind the merch counter! After a few songs I noticed that the security seemed pretty lax, so Lizz and I got up and made our way up front where a bunch of people were dancing and listening on the side, unhindered by any ushers. We stayed there for the rest of the show - worked for us!

As the show progressed I began to think that there wasn't going to be any "friends" showing up. Then Brian introduced Joan Osborne who sang a verse or two of "God Only Knows" with him. She was fine, but certainly not "ex-Beatle" fine. Usually this is a show stopper of a song. This time it sounded a bit unrehearsed and definitely missed all the horn parts that the full band usually covers. Then Brian introduces Al Kooper. Al Kooper? They proceeded with a nice version of "Caroline No" with Al doing a soulful turn on a verse and that was that. Sheesh - I have better "friends" than that! Well, maybe not, but I know Brian does. Guess they were busy doing nothing.

Soon - and it seemed a bit too soon - it was time for what is Brian's standing show ender - a full song medley of "Barbara Ann," "Surfin USA," and "Fun, Fun, Fun" - where they strap a bass on him - again, unplugged - and he makes his exit, always uncertain of which side of the stage to leave from. Then the encore, which traditionally had been "Love And Mercy" now replaced by the beautiful "Southern California" from the new release. Lizz and I bolted out to catch the train back home.

It was different than all the other shows I had seem him do, definitely a bit less magical. But it was Brian Wilson and that was good enough for me. However it apparently wasn't good enough for some others.

Negative reviews began to circulate on Brian's website and other blogs. People were complaining about the bad seats, the sort set, the missing band members and the lack of "Beach Boy rarities" in the show. Not for nothing, it was a 75 minute show with at least 17 songs, all preformed well by a kick ass, if somewhat truncated, band. Plus it was a benefit!

Then the most unexpected thing happening. Brian's wife Melissa posted to the message board on the site, saying that Brian was upset to hear that he may have disappointed some fans and in order to keep it "cool" he was going to offer a refund to anyone who wanted one.


Now it is easy to say he's out of his mind when speaking of Brian, as for all intents and purposes, he is. But to offer a refund to dissatisfied concert goers? This is some serious shit. I have been attending concerts all of my life and there have been plenty of times when I felt I didn't get my money's worth - especially in the past decade when ticket prices climbed to record rates. Imagine if I could have asked for a refund if I felt that the performance wasn't up to snuff? Or if they didn't play my favorite song or I didn't like my seat? On Van Morrison shows alone I would have saved enough to make a car payment or two!

This whole thing will most likely fade away quickly - the original post from Melinda Wilson is no longer on the board - but it would be interesting to see if anyone else picks up the gauntlet and does something similar. Did I consider sending in my tickets for refund? Not for a second, but I did wonder if I would get a check signed by Brian back in return.

Hmmmm ...

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