When I first heard that music legend Brian Wilson was going to be performing the entirety of “Pet Sounds” (without a doubt the greatest record from The Beach Boys’ extensive career), I just sat there dumbstruck for a time.
This was a man who had written some of the greatest pop songs of the 20th century and who was also responsible for one of the greatest albums in modern music. I eventually shook my head, came to my senses and made plans to be there. Brian Wilson would hear my voice alongside a chorus of like-minded pop devotees, ringing from wall to wall at the Tivoli Theatre.
But even in those early days, back when the concert was announced at the tail end of last year, I was trying to check my expectations. This isn’t 1966, and I wasn’t sure how the passing of time had affected Wilson and his music. In hindsight, I needn’t have worried about that. As the day of the show drew closer, I prepped by pulling out my vinyl copy of “Pet Sounds” and immersing myself in that vivid pop landscape built from a wealth of unbelievable melodies and harmonies that aspire to reach the upper exosphere. It’s a wonder just to sit and let those sounds wash over you, confident in their construction and resolutely holding to their timeless pop ideals.
As I walked toward my seat, the music of The Beach Boys was playing through the PA system, giving everyone a glimpse into the evening ahead. The lights began their flickering cadence shortly before 8 p.m., and a full house of people made their way to their respective seats. A short time later, the band strolled out on the stage with no announcement, and every seat was quickly emptied-and every voice was offering a joyful noise in appreciation.
As Wilson took his seat at his piano and fellow Beach Boys founder Al Jardine picked up his guitar, there was a feeling of history in that grand room, a sense that this was something that might never happen again-and with the official concert title being Brian Wilson Presents Pet Sounds: The Final Performances, there was every indication that we were all in for a one-time experience that none of us would forget.
The show was broken up into two halves, with a short intermission providing a breather. The first half consisted of the greatest hits of Wilson and The Beach Boys’ massive catalog. They were joined by Matt Jardine, Al’s son, and by ecstatic guitarist Blondie Chaplin, a man who spent time performing with bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, The Band and The Beach Boys throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Matt performed the higher harmonies and sang many songs that required a voice that Wilson and Al just couldn’t summon-but this didn’t seem like it took the spotlight away from them; it simply showed how the idea of family and the evolution of a certain pop ideology were alive and well within the Jardine family.
Chaplin was a force of nature, stomping and carrying the torch of decades past to every corner of that stage. Against the understated work of Wilson, his fretwork was a rock ‘n’ roll counterpoint that enlivened the evening in a way that people weren’t expecting, myself included. Strutting around like a cross between Chuck Berry and Robbie Robertson, Chaplin vented and wailed through his guitar while Wilson and the band provided ample room for him to maneuver his electrifying epiphanies through their vast pop environment.
Almost every song you could have hoped for was played, with classics such as “I Get Around,” “California Girls,” “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Good Vibrations” all hurled from the stage in a pop explosion that no one will soon forget. The electric version of “Wild Honey” (a song written by Carl Wilson) was a highlight, with Chaplin adding his distinctive guitar riffs to the band’s elaborate arrangements. There was no shortage of memorable moments, and with each song, the audience grew louder and more excited.
After a time, the band excused themselves and gave us all a moment to stretch our legs and feel the weight of the music we were about to hear. Not long after, the lights shuddered and the band was back, jumping right into “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the opening track from “Pet Sounds.” Cheers and a standing ovation followed the song’s musical introduction, and people were loath to sit down-but, eventually, we took our seats and listened as the music soaked into our skin. As Wilson, Al and the band strolled through the music, the full gravity of these songs became apparent. And not only were they as vibrant and ridiculously catchy as we’d all remembered, but they evinced a complexity that I’d never really noticed before.
From that opening track on to “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B,” “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” and “You Still Believe in Me,” these songs became physical and concrete manifestations of our collective wonder and awe. “Pet Sounds” is an intricate and sustainable pop masterpiece, and while I was sure of Wilson’s abilities, there was still some question as to how the live versions would sound. They sounded wonderful and lacked none of the spark and ear-catching pageantry that marked them when they were first released. The album was concluded with a beautiful rendition of “Caroline, No,” and just like that, “Pet Sounds” was done.
After an extended encore that included “Surfin’ USA” and “Love and Mercy” (among a handful of others), the band retired and left us to our own delirious pop memories. With the rhythms and melodies of “Pet Sounds” still echoing through our heads, we marched up the aisles and into the waiting night. Numerous pictures were taken of the Tivoli marquee, and the music of The Beach Boys soundtracked our respective rides home. For over two hours that night, the sounds of an unbreakable pop spectacle were alive and well in the city of Chattanooga.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.