Brian Wilson Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary Tour Review

No one knew David Bowie was dying. When he assembled Tony Visconti and jazz saxophonist Danny McCaslin in 2015 to work on the album Blackstar, he kept his growing cancer a secret from his band. He insisted on recording live with the full band. His mouth opened up with the now classic lyric from Lazarus: “Look up here/I’m in heaven,” and the band played on. Whatever doubts, questions, regrets or fears he felt as cancer shut down his liver, he expressed as he said everything in his life through music. Mystery and excitement were the hallmarks of a wide and varied recorded and performance output. But then, within days of Blackstar’s release, the unavoidable happened to the surprise of friends, fans and collaborators.

No one who has seen Brian Wilson on this most recent tour will be surprised.

Brian Wilson live in concert
Brian Wilson Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour 2017 by Mara Robinson

This was my sixth time in the last twenty years seeing Brian Wilson in concert, hereafter referred to affectionately by just his first name. Brian, the sad, chubby guy at the piano, singing about surfing for half a century. Brian, with melodies and harmonies that came straight from God. Brian, who when he looks in the mirror, sees his late brothers every day. Brian, whose songs have dug themselves into my heart since birth. My parents were fans, and played his music often growing up. His expression of innocence is my own innocence. I like “Fun, Fun, Fun.” I’ve covered Surfer Girl with my band. Caroline, No hit me right as I discovered girls could be sad.

Brian Wilson, Al Jardine by Mara Robinson
Brian Wilson, Al Jardine by Mara Robinson

I include these things in the preface to draw out a distinction between Brian and pretty much every other artist in existence. You listen to Brian with your heart. Sure, in attendance last week were those old rich people who will see any live act to cross them off a bucket list. They were listening with their wallets. Also, there were maybe a couple of nerdy music students who can parse out every harmonic interval and key change, and appreciate them for the innovations that he brought to early 1960s 1-4-5 pop music. They listen to Brian with their well-trained ears.

But I think Brian really lives in the hearts of people who love his songs. I think of my mom, who when she hears the intro to I Get Around starts waving her hands to the beat and start singing, even if she can’t get up to dance any more. There is a purity in her joy that grew from the seed Brian planted. Being my mother’s son on many different levels, I can’t say I reacted any differently last week, dancing in my seat, and bringing an embarrassed smile to my wife. I love these songs, and his band is able to execute them in such a way that hits that button reliably, year after year. There’s a lot of people like my mom out there.

She couldn’t make it this time. My mom has been sick for a while, and in all honesty, will probably be this sick until she dies. I wheeled her to that 2012 Beach Boys reunion show at Blossom, and she couldn’t stay the full time, so we left early. Even in the parking lot, she could hear the distant strains of Do You Wanna Dance? and thought about staying a little longer. I told her I was going to this show last week, and some part of her thinks maybe she could have managed to go, somehow, someway, but decided against it.

Brian Wilson Pet Sounds 2017 by Mara Robinson
Brian Wilson by Mara Robinson

Brian had to be walked out to his piano. I’m pretty certain he didn’t actually play the thing. He often started songs, with a voice pure but short, and then handed off the second verse to a younger singer. He’s sick. Any armchair doctor could suggest possible diagnoses, but who cares? He can’t walk, he can barely sing. He’s going to die.

The disconnect between Brian’s sadness and the sunniness of the Beach Boys sound is a turning point. When you unlock that mystery, the world opens up a little more; it’s a little fuller, more real. The program was a complete performance of his 1966 album Pet Sounds with its aching centerpiece I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times. He mostly spoke the lyrics, but his heart was heavy. He’s waited fifty more years, and it’s still not his time. It’s important to note the distinction between “sadness” and “darkness.” Another great legend of song who left us last year, Leonard Cohen, said until the very end “You want it darker.” That’s never true for Brian. As sad as he can be, confronted with abuse and drugs and death, he never let darkness pull him. His music continues to be filled with love and joy.

Brian Wilson live in concert Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour
Brian Wilson by Mara Robinson

Is Brian being exploited? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leonard Cohen resumed touring in the 2010s because bad managers left him broke and touring was the best source of income. Brian’s struggles with managers, starting with his own father Murray and continuing on to Eugene Landy, are also well known. Under his wife Melinda’s guidance, he appears to be financially stable, but there might be more people with their livelihoods tied to the Brian Wilson touring industry.

I bring this up because I think the answer hints at why this show last week was so great. I think Brian was up there not to make money but because he loves us. I can clearly see the scene in my mind. Brian gets some bad health news, and he says to his family “I think people want to hear these songs one more time, and if I can give to them, I should do it.” He knows it’s going to be hard. He knows his voice isn’t what it used to be. But he’s a giver, and when faced with hard times, he does what he knows he can do.

The only reason this works is because whatever Brian has given us, has given me, we’ve all repaid him more. What hope exists in this man? What faith? To launch his sadness into the void with just some pretty chords and harmonies. But it’s worked every time. His voice has landed on my fertile ears, who return not just the adoration of a rock star, but true genuine love.

The set last week closed with Love and Mercy, the title of a recent biopic, but the song is from the 1980s. He’s closed with it the last few times I’ve seen him, and I think that’s by his design. It’s a piano ballad about a dopey man going through his day, watching movies and getting dinner and trying to make people happy. Brian has always put himself openly and completely in everything he’s done, but this is Brian 2017. “Love and Mercy to you and your friends tonight.”

Al Jardine live in concert
Al Jardine by Mara Robinson
Brian Wilson Pet Sounds 2017 by Mara Robinson
Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour 2017 by Mara Robinson
Brian Wilson Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour 2017
Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour 2017 by Mara Robinson
Brian Wilson live in concert
Al Jardine, Blondie Chaplin by Mara Robinson

 

All photos by internationally published Cleveland / Akron music photographer Mara Robinson. See more photos at MaraRobinson.com

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Split Single, R. Ring Hit Road Together

Jason Narducy’s solo project Split Single and R. Ring [Kelley Deal (The Breeders), Mike Montgomery (Ampline)] are heading out on tour together.

This joining of forces came about because Laura King, who techs for Superchunk, will be playing drums with R. Ring on this tour. King knows Narducy, so she asked each group if they’d like to play some shows together. They agreed, and booked
12 shows in 12 days.

Over the years, Narducy has played with Bob Mould, Superchunk and Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices), Liz Phair and Telekinesis. He formed 4-piece rock group Verbow after college, featuring cellist Alison Chesley, and punk band Verböten when he was 10 years old—only one year after receiving his first guitar.

Thirteen-year-old Dave Grohl saw ten-year-old Narducy play in Verböten, and credits him as the catalyst that made him want to be a musician. “Watching Jason was the first time I thought I could start my own band and write my own kind of music,” says Grohl. “Jason totally set my life in this new direction. It wasn’t a Jimmy Page or KISS poster I had — it was fuckin’ him!”

Working solo under the name Split Single, Narducy collaborates with other artists to record his songs and play shows.

On his latest release, Metal Frames, Narducy is joined by John Stirratt (bassist for Wilco) and once again by indie rock’s busiest drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk, Bob Mould, The Mountain Goats, and comedy duo Sharpling and Wurster. 

For this tour, Narducy will be joined by drummer Tim Remus (Sweet Cobra) and Billy Yost (The Kickback) on bass. Certain dates will feature a second guitarist.

When Narducy set out make Metal Frames, he knew he wanted it to “be a little bit more rocking than the last record. I mean, I’m really proud of Fragmented World, it’s not like I have any regrets about it. But playing the Fragmented World songs live— I just wanted there to be some more loud rock songs.”

Split Single Metal Frames

Narducy has brought a good sense of humor to promoting his music through a series of videos.

“Some of them are self-deprecating, some of them are poking fun. The Sexiest Elbows in Rock pokes fun at exploiting sexuality and making oneself vulnerable in order to promote music,” he says. “So just thinking about the absurdities of being a musician and having fun with that. And it’s a nice creative outlet for me to do something different from music and also collaborate with other people… whether it be comedians or actors or other people that I look up to. And if they’re interested in doing something absolutely absurd and silly with me, then it can be a lot of fun.”

For the video for Untry Love, Narducy enlisted the help of two friends, comedian Dave Hill and songwriter Anya Marina, who try to mold him into “the ultimate between-song frontman.”

The video was shot in New York the day after Trump’s election.
“The crew was not sure if they were willing to do it, and I don’t blame them,” recalls Narducy. “Everybody was in shock, especially in New York. I mean, there were people weeping in the streets. It was a very dark day. But we all said, ‘we can go home and feel bad about ourselves, or we can collaborate with friends and be amongst friends and do something creative and try to not think about it for 12 hours.'”

The album’s shortest song, White Smoke, about the Tamir Rice murder in Cleveland, is also one that came the quickest to Narducy. 

“I’m fortunate that most of my childhood was in Chicago and in mixed neighborhoods, so I’ve always felt comfortable in diverse cultural surroundings,” he says. “Then I went to college in Baltimore, which is below the Mason-Dixon line, and I learned a lot about racism there and how real it is in America.”

“Trayvon Martin really struck home for me, that judgment.  Then Michael Brown right after that.  There’s so many. But Tamir Rice felt like the third one where they say that someone has a gun or they were going for a gun and they gave them a warning. You know, it’s sort of the same script. All of a sudden, with Tamir Rice, a video shows up that proves they were lying. It’s really difficult to watch that video, to watch a 12-year-old boy playing by himself. You know that was one of the lies; they said he was amongst all these other children and he wasn’t, he was by himself. And the cop car drives up into the park on the grass and the cop kills him in 1.7 seconds and then doesn’t help him. It’s just brutal. And then on top of all that, no one is held accountable for his death. So it’s a reminder that there need to be changes so that people in public feel safe, especially people of color.”

“I didn’t set out to write a song about that, it just sort of came out really fast,” Narducy continues. “It’s a short song and I might have written it faster than even the length of the song.”

“It’s important to me that that is discussed and that we move forward. It adds to my disgust with this current administration that Jeff Sessions, the new attorney general, is basically wanting to remove oversight for a lot of the actions that police officers take.”

“And listen, when I talk about these things— I’m friends with police officers. Just because you talk about something like this doesn’t mean you’re anti-police officer. I think 90 percent of police officers are doing the right thing, and sometimes they’re put in really horrible situations, and I couldn’t even imagine how scary they are or how much courage they take. It’s just— I don’t care if you’re a cop or not, if they murder someone, an unarmed person, they should be held accountable.”

R. Ring
R. Ring photo by Kristian Svitak
 

R. Ring duo Kelley Deal and Mike Montgomery have been making music together since mid-2010. Their first full-length, Ignite the Rest, is set to release April 28 on SofaBurn Records.

Deal and Montgomery have a free podcast on iTunes where they discuss genre-defying Ignite the Rest track-by-track, sharing stories behind each song and talking about their history and the people they met along the way.

“We really go into each song,” says Deal. “Where the seed came from. Who had it. Did it start as a vocal thing or a guitar thing, or did one of us bring it more fully formed? Because it feels like each one has been a little bit different.”

R. Ring Ignite the Rest album artDeal and Montgomery first met when he recorded the version of Scalding Creek she did with Cincinnati’s Buffalo Killers for Guided By Voices tribute album Sing for Your Meat.

When they got together, they agreed they didn’t want R. Ring to be like their other projects. “It’s not like there’s a process that’s set in stone,” says Montgomery. “It’s that there’s an idea that we should leave ourselves open to explore an idea to its own end, and let a song go where it wants to go.”

“When you are in a band that has defined roles, like there’s a singer, there’s a drummer,  there’s a bassist, there’s a rhythm guitar,” he continues, “You end up almost subconsciously, inadvertently steering an idea to a destination with those roles in mind. You think, ‘Well I could do this part, but what does the other person play? Oh, the bass would go here. Okay, the drums would go like this, this is the beat.’ And before you know it, you’ve crafted a song. You’re not even done with the melody and you’ve got a full arrangement worked out in your head. It kind of takes it to a place that maybe it wouldn’t have gone if you weren’t a conductor and songwriter at the same time, trying to define the elements of the song.”

Just a couple months after meeting, R. Ring did their first show. “Someone asked us to get up there, and that’s what we did… We had fun, which was the most important thing… It was a totally open-ended thing,” Montgomery explains, “Like, this isn’t a band, there’s nothing proper hanging over us… It’s the idea that we could do something just for our own amusement and enjoy the process. That’s what the first show and the genesis of the band was all about.” 

“Yeah, and it’s kind of been keeping that,” agrees Deal. “Because especially in this day and age, you hear plenty about the industry. It really is all about the process more than ever. More than ever. It really is like, ‘are you enjoying it? Are you enjoying who you’re hanging with? Are you enjoying the process of creating music? Playing with somebody else. You know, getting in a van and driving somewhere with somebody. Because that’s a really wonderful thing.”

Montgomery agrees, “This is what the album is about. This is what the podcast is about. Talking to you right now is as much a part of being in a band; it’s as key or as relevant or as focus-worthy as anything else. Doing music is really about making art and creation and expression a part of your life.  So anyone that’s involved, whether you’re a poster silkscreener, or photocopying things at Kinkos, or a journalist—”

“Or a photographer,” chimes Deal.

“All of that stuff. All of these interactions, these relationships, this humanity is really like a small experience of the creation of a song,” Montgomery continues. “It’s not just playing a song live at a show, it’s everything that goes into it. All the neat people we meet along the way… from the person selling tickets to the roadie to the bartender to the opening act to the mechanic who did the oil change. All of that stuff, that is music to Kelley and I. And that’s what R. Ring is about, acknowledging that music is woven into the fabric of your life. A band is not defined by the narrow parameters of a single, an EP, a record, a tour. Being in a band is really your life.”

“There’s a lot of collaboration and cooperation that needs to take place, so you might as well enjoy it and you might as well surround yourself with people that you like being around,” he says.

This holistic outlook and openness led them to the musicians who play with them at shows and on album tracks, including drummer Laura King and cellist Lori Goldston.

Montgomery met King a couple years ago when she bought an R. Ring t-shirt online and his small one-man operation forgot to send it, so she emailed to remind him. “They just got to talking,” says Deal. “So when we went on tour last year, we had her band, Flesh Wounds, open some shows on the east coast. That’s how we started hanging with her.” 

“Now we’re like soulmates,” agrees Montgomery. “We’re on a team. We’re buddies.” He recalls that King was “instrumental in pulling (the song Cutter) together” while recording the Ignite the Rest album, when he and Deal weren’t sure it was shaping up.

Lori Goldston played cello on four tracks: Cutter, 100 Dollar Heat, Steam and You Will Be Buried Here. Deal met Goldston when The Breeders were touring with Nirvana for their In Utero tour. Goldston was Nirvana’s touring cellist. “I reconnected with her when Mike and I did a show in Seattle,” recalls Deal. “I walked in and there’s Lori Goldston. She happened to be in one of the local bands playing with us that night. I invited her to join us. I listened to her set and it was just beautiful. I said ‘Hey, can you just keep your stuff up there and just play along with us?’ She said ‘Sure!'”

“She put her cello through pedals and an amp,” continues Deal. It wasn’t like ‘I’m going to find a melody and play countermelodies that you can hear distinctly through everything.’ It was more like an ambience or overtone. Swells and meanderings. So it was really nice and atmospheric stuff that she was doing. And ever since then I was like, ‘When we do our record, we’re definitely gonna have her come out.’ And we did, and she came, and it was awesome.”

Kelley Deal (R. Ring) photo by Mara Robinson
Kelley Deal (R. Ring) photo by Mara Robinson
R Ring by Mara Robinson
Mike Montgomery (R. Ring) photo by Mara Robinson
Kelley Deal & Mike Montgomery (R. Ring) photo by Mara Robinson
Kelley Deal & Mike Montgomery (R. Ring) photo by Mara Robinson

Split Single and R. Ring play Cleveland’s Happy Dog Sunday, April 23. Local favorites Goldmines open (featuring members of Hot Cha Cha).
Check back with us after the show for our review and photo recap.

April 19: Newport, KY at Southgate House Revival
April 20: Columbus, OH at Rumba Café
April 21: Detroit, MI at Trinisophes
April 22: Chicago, IL at Schubas
April 23: Cleveland, OH at Happy Dog
April 24: Philadelphia, PA at Everybody Hits
April 25: Kingston, NY at BSP Kingston
April 26: Brooklyn, NY at Babys All Right
April 27: Baltimore, MD at Ottobar
April 28: Washington, DC at Comet Ping Pong
April 29: Chapel Hill, NC at Night Light

 

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