- BRIAN WILSON with CHICAGO
- Starlight Theater – Kansas City, Missouri
- June 20, 2022
Brian Wilson’s 80th Birthday Party or How Chicago Set the Starlight on Fire
June 20 would have been s a big day for music even if Brian Wilson and his accomplished band had stayed in California and enjoyed the surf. The composer, arranger and producer of countless hits for the Beach Boys and others turned 80, and the Internet was full of tributes. In one video fellow musicians Elton John, Joe Walsh and even actor Jeff Bridges wished him well. Naturally, the clip played just before he and the band took the stage.
Wilson can no longer hit those acrobatic high notes and now gently croons Beach Boy Mike Love’s vocal parts and spends much of his own shows watching on as Darian Sahanaja and a gifted ensemble perform the songs and a few covers in a way that sounds better than Wilson’s compositions might have sounded when he was touring with the Beach Boys in the early 1960s. Thanks to Beach Boys cofounder Al Jardine, his son Matt and decades of improvement in amplification, Wilson’s dense harmonies and complicated arrangements now work live.
Sahanaja, who worked with Wilson on resurrecting his lost album SMiLE also knows how to make tunes like “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains” reach their full depth on stage. The former was recorded in four different studios, and the 12 people on stage ably made it work on a hot clear night.
Maybe you don’t need to work the crowd if your songs and your band’s performance are this good.
Midway through the set South African Blondie Chaplin who played with the Beach Boys in the 70s and who has teamed up with the Rolling Stones and others roared though “Sail On, Sailor,” “Wild Honey” and “Long Promised Road,” a song by Brian’s younger brother Carl, which provides the tile to a terrific documentary on Wilson that is currently playing on the PBS streaming app. Chaplin’s wailing voice and stinging guitar licks seem like a bolt of lightning has hit the Starlight despite the clear, sunny evening. The energy rose and kept nearly 60-year-old tunes from seeming as if they were preserved in amber.
The Jardines both have fine voices, and Matt’s falsettos were the highlight of “Don’t Worry Baby.” Jardine can still plead for Rhonda’s help and sound like he means it.
In the documentary, Wilson appears to be happiest and most animated when he’s in the studio coaxing out arrangements. For his birthday show, there were hints when he altered the playlist slightly. As the he led the crowd in the Ronette’s “Be My Baby,” his fondness more than made up for the fact that he doesn’t have the late Ronnie Spector’s superhuman vocal chops.
Wilson always gets a standing ovation for “God Only Knows,” but he also seemed to hit his stride later in the set when he broke into a rousing version of “Surfin’ U.S.A.” Wilson had to use a walker to get on and off the stage, but that song almost made you think that he was getting ready to join his late brother Dennis to catch some tasty waves. Dennis was the only Beach Boy who ever got on a board, but Brian still understood that even people from Kansas or Missouri could love the sport through music.
Another pleasant surprise can when Chicago’s horn section joined Wilson’s band for “Darlin’.” Trombonist James Pankow, trumpeter Lee Loughnane and sax player Ray Herrman seamlessly fit in the tune, which boded well for the rest of the set.
Chicago is celebrating a 55th anniversary of its own, and cofounders Pankow, Loughnane and singer-keyboardist Robert Lamm all seemed elated to be back on stage after covid had sidelined the band for a few years. All are in their mid-70s and perform with a gusto that would make younger men jealous. Pankow, in particular struts around with his trombone as if it were a small harmonica.
As a grade schooler, I tried taking up in the instrument and would like to apologize to my teacher and the classmates for the drubbing their ears took from me. It’s a heavy, challenging instrument, and Pankow energetically answered everything guitarist Tony Obrohta threw his way.
While the band has had most of its hits with ballads, their live takes on the songs have just enough snap to them to keep the melodies from becoming sleep inducing. One almost wishes that songs like “If You Leave Me Now,” hadn’t downplayed the horns, which are a highlight of the live gigs.
Singer-bassist Peter Cetera left the group in the mid-1980s, but Canadian Neil Donnell sings Cetera’s tenor parts with enthusiasm. He used to play in a Chicago tribute band called Brass Transit and adds just enough spontaneity to prevent Cetera’s absence from overwhelming the tunes.
Chicago may have sold lots of copies of “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” but the band really tore into the upbeat coda “Coda.” The same could be said of their takes on “I’m a Man” and “25 or 6 to 4.” The 1969 hit, which was about Lamm’s attempt to finish a song in the middle of the night despite missing two strings on his 12-string guitar, was the second song in the encore and easily proved that some of the band’s best tunes are the rockers.
Chicago debuted a new ballad “If This Is Goodbye,” but the highlights were the extended jams. In the middle of the set, drummer Walfredo Reyes Jr. and percussionist Ramon “Ray” Yslas got into a sort of duel as flames played on large screens behind them. The images weren’t an exaggeration.
Wilson may have been the birthday boy, but he and Chicago certainly gave back a lot to the crowd that night.