Photos & Story by Scott A. Smith
Somewhere along the way, pop became a dirty, hate-attracting word in rock music.
For years, many hard-rock fans — and some critics — have shot their noses skyward at the mere mention of the word pop, a word too many people have associated with bubble-gum, completely disposable music.
But there was a time, before the terms hard rock and heavy metal frequented society, when the steely sounds of Jimi Hendrix and the early work of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones were actually called pop by many, and not in a derogatory way. The pop-music umbrella used to cover those acts, as well as the good-time — and utterly non-disposable — craft of The Beach Boys. Not as heavy as Zeppelin and not boasting the street-roaming, sex-filled attitude of the Stones, the vision and musical results of Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson are equally as thrilling and important.
Need proof that Wilson’s songwriting and back catalog as the creative driving force of The Beach Boys will be admired for decades like the work of The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd? Just go see Wilson in concert, and although the mellow man with the salt-and-pepper pompadour won’t be swinging from the rafters or igniting hot, blinding pyros, Wilson’s songs will speak for themselves.
And they’ll speak quite loudly, as they did during Wilson’s 90-minute concert at The Joint inside the Tulsa Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. The sometimes-reclusive Rock and Roll Hall of Famer took the stage with his gifted nine-piece band a couple minutes after 8 p.m. First there were cheers from the near-capacity audience, and then a respect-filled hush glided over the indoor, amphitheater-shaped theater. Three seconds later, the opening, playful chords of “California Girls” rushed from the appropriately loud sound system, with Wilson flashing a quick grin while playing his center-stage piano.
In all honesty, “California Girls” sounded solid, but there was still a little room for more energy. As if reading this writer’s mind, Wilson and his band of professionals soon upped their efforts, with the surreal instrumental “Pet Sounds” dipping into a territory not far removed from Santana and Traffic. The input from the band’s instruments — two guitars, bass, three keyboards, saxophone, percussion and drums played by a dead-ringer for The Who’s Zak Starkey — grew more assertive while still retaining melody, structure and purpose.
Even better than the winning “Pet Sounds” was the three-way sonic punch built upon the masterful “Heroes and Villains,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows.” For “Heroes and Villains,” Wilson and his band-mates stepped into, in his own words, a “prayer-like, a capella” passage before entering into a brilliant take of the immortal, optimistic “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
“God Only Knows,” the part-hopeful, part-somber highlight from The Beach Boys’ pioneering “Pet Sounds” album from 1966, saw Wilson regaining control of the lead-vocal spot. Wilson didn’t hit every high note heard on the cherished vinyl original, but he smartly sang within his range, singing in a style that married child-like innocence with an older gentleman’s wisdom. The inclusion of the song’s famous French horn part was a jackpot moment.
Wilson also was generous in giving the audience a perfect rendition of “Sloop John B,” another well-known composition from “Pet Sounds.” The track’s lyrics of “Why don’t they let me go home? This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on” still makes one silently ask, is “Sloop John B” really about the Vietnam War?
Dressed in a long-sleeved, button-down shirt, dark pants and what looked like loafers, Wilson seemed to be in a jovial mood, deadpanning more than once, “Here’s a song from the ’60s,” which drew that trademark half-smile from his face and numerous laughs from the attentive crowd.
“Good Vibrations” came late in the gig, with all of its hazy, semi-psychedelic fun intact. Colored lights quickly danced across the rectangular stage before scurrying up along the Joint’s backstage curtains, while the almost slow, near-spooky verses traded space with the bouncy, time-shifting chorus. That night in Tulsa, “Good Vibrations” actually worked better live than it does in its already worthy studio incarnation.
Watching and hearing Wilson stroll through his ground-breaking work in Tulsa, it quickly became apparent that the best of Wilson’s work easily matches the song-craft genius of fellow Americans Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder. Chord for chord, verse for verse, one would be hard pressed to find better U.S. musical treasures than”Heroes and Villains,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows.” Those songs have lived and touched so many lives for 50 years. My cash says that Wilson’s music will last another five decades … and then some.