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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 Pet Sounds 2017 by Mara Robinson
Brian Wilson 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.

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

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 (The Beach Boys) by Mara Robinson
Al Jardine by Mara Robinson
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
Brian Wilson live in concert
Brian Wilson Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour 2017 by Mara Robinson
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Photo Recap: Glen Phillips at Music Box

Best known for his talents as the lead singer and songwriter of Toad The Wet Sprocket, Glen Phillips has continued to perform as an independent artist focused on honest storytelling and compelling songwriting. The latest stop on tour in support of his latest album, Swallowed by the New, was to a packed but chilly crowd at Cleveland’s Music Box Supper Club. The biting cold and rain on a wintery March night couldn’t stop his passionate fans from sitting in on this show.

Amber Rubarth live in concert at Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland
Amber Rubarth photo by Mara Robinson

But first, wrapped in comfy scarf, blue dress and rose cowboy boots, Amber Rubarth took the stage and warmed up the icy crowd with a selection of acoustic numbers. The comforting blend of indie country and folk rock from her upcoming new album Wildflowers in the Graveyard were lovely and her light, soft voice captured the intimacy and strength of her songs. Even her gentle spin on REM’s Losing My Religion recast the classic song in a new light. Later in the set, the crowd got a preview of Glen Phillips as he joined Amber onstage for a stirring guitar and vocal duet. Amber will be returning next month for the Cleveland International Film Festival in support of her starring role in the movie “September 12th.” The film discusses people’s compassion and coming together following the events of September 11th. Amber and co-star Joe Purdy will perform after the screening in Tower City on April 1st and 3rd.

Glen Phillips live in concert at Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland
Glen Phillips photo by Mara Robinson

Glen Philips was excited to finally feel better for once. After just getting over a recent bout of sickness, he was finally able to let loose, bringing smiles and laughs to the crowd and his friends onstage. Joined by talented musicians/songwriters Amber Rubarth and fellow Toad collaborator Jonathan Kingham, Glen featured a majority of the tracks from Swallowed by the New, while taking time to weave their stories and settings between songs. At one point, he told the story of how Baptistina was named for the original source of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, only to find out the source was later disproven.

Jonathan Kingham and Amber Rubarth live in concert at Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland
Jonathan Kingham, Amber Rubarth, photo by Mara Robinson

Even though Phillips’ songs are emotional, the night was filled with fun and good spirits. His priceless reaction after his mention that the tour would be ending in Pittsburgh the following night was met with jeers and boos. “Is it a sports thing?” he asked innocently, before getting briefly educated about the infamous rivalry between the two cities. He started a new song, only to stop and remark, “You know, back in the day, this kind of hate was reserved for someone else breaking into your town and stealing all your sheep or something.”

Jonathan Kingham live in concert at Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland
Jonathan Kingham photo by Mara Robinson

The standout moment of the night belonged to Jonathan Kingham. Before turning the stage over to Kingham for a song, Phillips asked the crowd what they wanted to hear him play. Unanimously, we voted for “funky freestyle,” which Kingham obliged with a solo acoustic version of Every Little Step by Bobby Brown, complete with dance breakdown and off-the-dome freestyle lyrics. Bars included having the meatsweats from his pre-show shortrib dinner, and apologizing to the guy stage right for having to pay full price for a seat with a direct view of his ass all night. “You won’t normally see that at a Glen Phillips show!” he quipped at song’s end.

Glen Phillips, Amber Rubarth, and Jonathan Kingham live in concert at Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland
Glen Phillips photo by Mara Robinson

Glen’s voice is still as distinct and expressive as ever, with touching and tragic lyrics about love, loss, faith, his divorce, and hope combined with his signature folk-inspired songwriting. Even while Glen admitted on stage that “my songs are mainly about how sad I am,” each song of the evening’s set illustrated a wide range of feeling: from the forlorn lighthouse love song in the album’s opening song Go — which muses that sometimes the most loving thing you can do for someone is to let them go — to the closing inspirational, stomping, hymnal chorus of Held Up. Glen also played several popular songs and fan favorites from his Toad The Wet Sprocket years, including All I Want, Walk On The Ocean, and an encore crowd request of Crowing that got the room singing along and ended the evening on a high note.

Glen Phillips live in concert at Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland
Glen Phillips photo by Mara Robinson

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Photos: Howard Jones Plays Cleveland

New wave/synthpop musician Howard Jones is on a North American tour and made a stop in Cleveland last night at the Music Box Supper Club.

The English artist is known for 15 top-40 hits in the 80s and early 90s, including No One is to Blame, Everlasting Love, New Song, What is Love, Like to Get to Know You Well, and Life in One Day.

Howard Jones by Mara Robinson
Howard Jones photo by Mara Robinson

Whereas past tours have featured simply Jones and a piano, this tour adds the flavor of a second synth player and an electronic drummer for a fuller, more rocking sound closer to the way we hear them on his albums.

Jones is a fantastic performer, and he peppered his set with just the right amount of between-song storytelling. He introduced Life in One Day as a song that is full of lies. “The old man said to me don’t always take your life so seriously? That’s a lie, my father never said that. The record company asked for another hit so I made this up,” Jones admitted. “No. Take your life seriously, especially in this day and age.” Although he agreed that learning to “play the flute and dance and sing your song” is pretty good advice, especially given the flute stylings of Ron Burgundy.

A couple times he’d interrupt a song to tell a quick story, like when he stopped New Song‘s chorus to talk about how much the critics hated his music back in the day, but how the public loved it.

For an encore he played Things Can Only Get Better, bringing a fantastic evening to a close. He described it as a mantra for when life isn’t going so well. But after such a fun and inspiring show, things were just about as good as they can get.

Howard Jones by Mara Robinson
Howard Jones photo by Mara Robinson
Howard Jones by Mara Robinson
Howard Jones photo by Mara Robinson
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Photos: Death From Above 1979 at Cleveland HOB

Death From Above 1979 performing live at the House of Blues Cleveland October 11, 2016.
Death From Above 1979 features Sebastien Grainger (drums, vocals) and Jesse Keeler (guitar, vocals).

Death From Above 1979 played in support of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (photos here) and along with Deap Vally (photos here).

See more images from this show and others at MaraRobinson.com.

Death From Above 1979 by Mara Robinson
Death From Above 1979 at House of Blues photo by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Death From Above 1979 by Mara Robinson
Death From Above 1979 at House of Blues photo by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Death From Above 1979 by Mara Robinson
Death From Above 1979 at House of Blues photo by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Death From Above 1979 by Mara Robinson
Death From Above 1979 at House of Blues photo by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Death From Above 1979 by Mara Robinson
Death From Above 1979 at House of Blues photo by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Death From Above 1979 by Mara Robinson
Death From Above 1979 at House of Blues photo by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Death From Above 1979 by Mara Robinson
Death From Above 1979 at House of Blues photo by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
Death From Above 1979 by Mara Robinson
Death From Above 1979 at House of Blues photo by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson
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Photos: Deap Vally at Cleveland House of Blues

Deap Valley live at the House of Blues Cleveland, with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Death From Above 1979.

Deap Valley features Lindsey Troy (guitar, vocals) and guest drummer Lia Simone filled in last night for Julie Edwards.

See more of last night’s photos here: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Death From Above 1979.

All photos by Cleveland music photographer Mara Robinson.
See more images from this show and others here.

Deap Vally at Cleveland House of Blues by Mara Robinson
Deap Vally at Cleveland House of Blues Oct 11, 2016 photo by Mara Robinson
Deap Vally at Cleveland House of Blues by Mara Robinson
Deap Vally at Cleveland House of Blues Oct 11, 2016 photo by Mara Robinson
Deap Vally at Cleveland House of Blues by Mara Robinson
Deap Vally at Cleveland House of Blues Oct 11, 2016 photo by Mara Robinson
Deap Vally at Cleveland House of Blues by Mara Robinson
Deap Vally at Cleveland House of Blues Oct 11, 2016 photo by Mara Robinson
Deap Vally at Cleveland House of Blues by Mara Robinson
Deap Vally at Cleveland House of Blues Oct 11, 2016 photo by Mara Robinson
Deap Vally at Cleveland House of Blues by Mara Robinson
Deap Vally at Cleveland House of Blues Oct 11, 2016 photo by Mara Robinson
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