NEW YORK, NY/MONTCLAIR, NJ—Sometimes two separate entities can seem to be an unlikely pairing—bananas and peanut butter, Aerosmith and Run DMC, french fries and chocolate milkshakes—but when combined, become an explosion for the senses. California 1960s sensation Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys fame and former Yardbird and arguably the best, most underrated and inventive guitarist of our time, Jeff Beck, are one of those combinations.
Seeing them share a bill and a stage together was surprising yet expected. Their genres could not be more far apart but their attitudes toward melody and distinction are not. The core of who they each are and how they hone their crafts comes down to a very striking similarity.
Tuesday night took place at the Beacon Theatre in NYC and Wednesday night at The Wellmont Theater in Montclair, NJ. Witnessing artists perform back-to-back is a very telling tale. Sometimes seeing a certain show can cement a very strong opinion of an artist in your mind, which may quickly change the next time you see them. Those opinions arrive faster and more understood in immediate succession.
Night one at the Beacon was pure magic all around.
Wilson and his 11-piece band hit the stage without delay at 8 p.m. with “Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring,” a song originally brought to life by The Four Freshmen which Wilson and his band chose to do beautifully and simply a cappella. Former Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin joined the band on stage between an energizing version of “California Girls” to get the night started and “Sail On Sailor,” a superbly well-written song Chaplin recorded with the band during his short stint from early 1972 to late 1973, which he delivered with technical and emotional precision.
After Chaplin finished “Wild Honey,” Wilson announced that it would not be a normal set; they would be performing the Pet Sounds album—from “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” through to “Caroline, No”—in its entirety. It was a surprise and a gift to that New York crowd which they would never forget. Memories of Love Actually poured through my mind as they beautifully played “God Only Knows,” a song Wilson fondly thinks of as the best song he ever wrote. “And I’ve written a lot of songs,” he concluded.
Nine of the 11 band members—including Wilson, who sat perched at his piano all night and in addition to Michael D’Amico on drums and Robert Lizik on bass guitar—had a hand in singing alongside their respective instruments: Al Jardine (guitar), David Lee Marks (guitar), Jeffrey Foskett (guitar), Scott Bennett (keys), Probyn Gregory (guitar, horns), Darian Sahanaja (keys), Paul Mertens (horns, musical director), Nelson Bragg (percussion) and Nick Walusko (guitar).
When it comes to harmonies, it doesn’t get much better than The Beach Boys.
When it comes to making a guitar sing harmonies, it doesn’t get much better than Beck.
Watching Beck play his Stratocasters on stage—whether with both hands or astonishingly just his left—is like trying to unravel a tried and true mystery that has been going on for decades. “What is he thinking? Where did he [mentally] just go? How did he do that? Why is a smile such a rarity?”
Beck is indeed one of the original “Strat Cats,” although like any distinctive musician, his brand of instrument does not define him. His touch, tone and melody do. He could trade in for a Les Paul or Danelectro and still find a way to sound like himself. The way Beck makes his guitar roar like a lion or belt like a seasoned opera singer is why he has garnered the respect of the masses, even if his short commercial success causes people to get stuck at anything between 1975’s Blow By Blow and 1989’s Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, respectively. It must be said, though, that the Strat was built for Beck; it’s as if it’s an extension of his body, another limb.
The same can be said for his carefully handpicked bandmates: Nicholas Meier is his right-hand man, and the only true guitarist to ever set foot on stage with him as a solo artist, playing his acoustic guitar right beside Beck at every turn; violinist Lizzie Ball is his left-hand girl, surrounding him with seamless melodies and even “going Beck” on her violin; Rhonda Smith is no doubt the blood pumping through Beck’s veins as she locks into any and every rhythm easily on her bass; and Jonathan Joseph is Beck’s heartbeat. They’re all an extension of him.
Beck opened the night with his powerful ode to John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham with “Eternity’s Breath/Stratus,” and onto Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” his own “Pump,” “Big Block,” which always gets the audience lost in the groove and onto Meier’s original song “Yemen,” which Beck was so proud to share with everyone and “How High The Moon,” where he was happy to see Ball do Mary Ford’s original vocals (and more recently with Beck, Imelda May) justice. As with any double bill, you end up missing certain staples, and Beck’s newer material was definitely in that category.
Not only was everyone on stage on top of their game, but everyone working at the venue was too, as they kept the chaos organized, escorted us photographers with our cameras to our designated areas to shoot and made sure we were taken care of.
As for the audience, whether they were belting out Beach Boy tunes with Wilson & Co. or soaking up Beck’s rarities, there was nothing but respect and standing ovations for both. During Beck’s hauntingly beautiful “Where Were You,” the audience became completely and utterly silent, a nod of esteem toward Beck. Even when someone slipped while uttering words of surprise as Beck played slide with his left hand (only), a fellow attendee quickly and curtly yelled “SHHH!” That was the end of that. A special member of that crowd was native New Yorker and supremely talented actor Paul Dano (2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, this year’s Prisoners, among others), who is also a musician in his own right, singing and playing guitar in his band Mook. Dano was no doubt inspired by the show, happily conversing with Jardine and other members of Wilson’s ensemble after the show.
Night two at Wellmont saw another magical set from Beck, a consistent performance when he, Wilson and their bands united once again, but unfortunately a lackluster one on Wilson’s part.
Wilson and his band opened again with “Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring,” onto “California Girls” and throughout the night went through the motions with songs including “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Sail On Sailor,” “Wild Honey,” “Pet Sounds,” “God Only Knows,” “I Get Around” and “Good Vibrations.”
Unfortunately, playing all of Pet Sounds the night before may have taken its toll on Wilson’s voice and the consistency of the following night’s energy and setlist. His band went from strong, energetic and melodic on Tuesday night to uninspired with a pitchy vocal performance on Wilson’s end. If I had only seen them in NY, I would have loved them; if only in NJ, I would have leaned the other way. Seeing them back-to-back in different settings leaves me undecided and able to view it from both sides.
Beck, who I’ve seen many times before, did his usual tweaks and changed up small things between nights such as notes, melodies, how much he chose to talk or how he chose to work with his guitar. What did not change or waver, however, was his strength and ability to do what he does oh so well, even with too much high end in the mix against him.
He was in rare form, smiling and laughing more than ever before; especially when, early into the set he looked straight into center orchestra where Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers fame was sitting. Looking like a giddy young lad meeting his childhood idol, Beck thanked Medley for the Brothers inspiration. He couldn’t get over the fact that a man who had such a part in influencing him to do what he does had come to see him play. Medley was in the audience, watching Beck. And Beck’s cheeks had to have been sore from all that smiling.
The collective consistency and sanity within both nights resided with the performances Beck, Wilson and their bands did together on both nights. Toward the end of Beck’s set, Wilson and members of his band rotated the stage for “Brush With The Blues” (1999’s Who Else!), “Rollin’ And Tumblin'” (2001’s You Had It Coming), and the Smile classics “Our Prayer” and “Child Is The Father Of The Man.”
Even though “Surfin’ USA” and “Barbara Ann” were for the most part a given for the encore, when both entire bands came together as they were introduced by musical director Mertens, how they ended with “Danny Boy” was a fine example of why Beck and The Beach Boys work when combined. As Wilson and his band took on unmatched vocal harmonies, Beck weaved around them gently with his guitar in ways that no other guitarist ever could.
It was a showcase of what everyone does best, which, whether certain members of the audience got it or not, was the very point of the Wilson/Beck tour and is the inspiration for their upcoming album.