When Brian Wilson and his 11-piece band take the stage at the on Aug. 25, they’ll be in the midst of a quick 4-performance California tour from Saratoga to Agoura Hills (San Fernando Valley) between Aug. 24 and Aug. 28.
Thursday's concert follows a 3-week tour of East Coast gigs that concluded on Aug. 6 in Florida, and precedes a 12-date tour of Europe in September, from Ireland to Brussels.
It all adds up to about 40 shows from June through September.
Not bad for a 69-year old musician who famously had a nervous breakdown while touring in 1964, when he was only 23.
That took Wilson off the road with the Beach Boys and into the studio, where he produced some of the most influential pop music of the twentieth century.
On his current tour, he also pays tribute to an earlier giant of American music:
“We’re doing some Gershwin, from my Gershwin album,” Wilson said during a telephone interview last week. “We do four or five Gershwin [songs], and we do mostly Beach Boys classics.”
Published set lists on BrianWilson.com show that up to 40 songs are performed each night, with only a few from the Gershwin project.
The list of hits is almost mind-numbing: “Surfer Girl” to “I Get Around”, “California Girls” to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Fun Fun Fun” to “All Summer Long.”
Plus too many more to mention here, God only knows.
So how is being on the road now working out for Wilson?
“You know, it’s like anything,” he answered casually.
“If you don’t do anything, what are you going to do with your time? Or your life?”
Brian Wilson’s troubled life has become almost as legendary as his music, and has doubtless given rise to as many misconceptions as urban legends: That he wrote songs on a piano set in a living room sandbox so he could feel the beach between his toes. That he stayed in bed for months, years, unable or unwilling to face the world. That his brain was addled by drugs, by child abuse, by a controlling psychologist who manipulated the talented musician for his own gain.
It seemed a strange counterpoint to the sunny songs of California that made Wilson famous, songs that idealized a Sixties surf culture of suntanned bodies and waves of sunshine, hot cars and moonlit nights, the California Dream in a three-minute single.
These days, Wilson doesn’t seem to bother with all that. He’s playing music on stage with a band he calls “the best band I’ve every heard,” touring in a $1.4 million dollar tour bus he’s almost giddily enthused about, he’s recording new music (five new songs in the can from Chicago sessions just last week) and reshaping old classics (an already completed album of songs from Disney films, “Songs in the Key of Disney,” is set for release in October).
Early next year, the long-thought-lost original “Smile” sessions will finally be released, featuring the full Beach Boys line-up as they were in 1967.
He’s even writing songs again.
“I went for about four years without writing a single song,” Wilson said. “Then all of a sudden I started writing a whole bunch of songs again.
"When it comes it comes, when it doesn’t it doesn’t.”
Much of his seeming peace of mind and physical fitness he openly credits to his second wife, Melinda Ledbetter Wilson, whom he married in 1995 (and who helped him escape his dependence on psychologist Eugene Landy).
“I was given a solo career by my wife. My wife and my publicist gave me a solo career. I’ve been doing this [concerts] for 12 years now. And I thank God every time I have a concert. She has put me up to these concerts. I owe a lot to her.”
This concert is not, like several earlier tours this century, driven by “concept.” In 2000, Wilson took to the road for his first extended tour in decades, performing the legendary “Pet Sounds” in its entirely -- the album released in 1966 that was both a response to the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” and inspiration for “Sgt. Pepper.”
Following the 2004 exhumation of the long-thought-lost “Smile” album, Wilson and his crew embarked on a highly successful tour performing the suite live, including its hits “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains” and “Surf’s Up.”
He followed that up in 2008 with a tour performing his solo album “That Lucky Old Sun,” a musical tribute to his home state of California.
Most recently, the George Gershwin estate approached him to work with some unfinished Gershwin songs, and he took the opportunity to record “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin,” a collection of Gershwin standards and vocal orchestrations of sections of “Rhapsody in Blue.”
That album hit #1 on the Billboard Jazz charts one year ago, and Wilson and his band will play selections during their Napa concerts – and possibly play the entire album set in Europe in September.
Looking back on this busy past decade, it’s hard to believe this is the same “troubled genius” who became the subject of wild rumors and the butt of bad jokes. This is an active, engaged and dynamic musician making the best not only of his own legacy but his continuing creative energy.
Speaking of his Gershwin album, I told him that while his hopped-up, poppy version of “I Got Rhythm” sounds like the best Beach Boys song in 30 years, I also found myself strangely affected by his “I Loves You Porgy.”
“You know what it is, it’s actually a song designed for a girl to sing,” he says.
“I chose that song to sing not that I wanted to be a chick, but because I wanted to express the love of that song. It has nothing to do with me being a chick in my mind. It’s just something I do.”
The result is a terrific adaptation, straightforward, honest and open.
Knowing his well-known influences the Four Freshmen and Phil Spector, I start to ask if any others bear mentioning. He interrupts me before I’ve finished.
“Rosemary Clooney has a place in my life too, because when I was first started hearing music I was like 12, 14 years old? And I’ll be darned if I didn’t learn how to sing from Rosemary Clooney. I learned how to have love when I sing – she taught me that.”
At the start of the conversation, I asked if he’d ever been to Napa before. “No, I haven’t. Where am I playing, indoor or outdoor?”
I told him a bit about the remodeled Uptown Theatre. “Good, I like indoor shows better than outdoor.”
Then I wondered what the show itself was like. “Do you have fancy light show stuff, or smoke bombs or …?”
“No. It’s just regular stage lights on all 11 of us,” he answered. “No fancy stuff.”
Then, “Jimmy Buffett has that kind of thing doesn’t he? We were on his bill once for a tour, and he has all kinds of girls in costumes running around.
“It was really pretty cool.”