Brian Wilson and Zombies Harmonic Convergence: Review

Brian Wilson
Michelle Shiers
– Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Blondie Chaplin and the rest of the Brian Wilson Band at L.A.

Brian Wilson, Zombies
Greek Theater, Los Angeles
Cap: 5,870
Sept 12, 2019

While Quentin Tarantino and the rest of the pop culture universe obsesses over the 50th anniversary of 1969, in their typically contrarian nature, Brian Wilson and The Zombies choose to celebrate the year before with their current, cheekily named “Something Great from 1968” tour. The month-long, 14-date Nederlander/Live Nation-produced show opened at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on Aug. 31 and concludes with a Sept. 28 date at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia.

The Greek performance was only the fifth, but the intriguing double-bill echoed other recent innovative Rock and Roll Hall of Fame pairings Elvis Costello and Blondie , and Heart and Joan Jett (with Elle King). Recently inducted into the Rock Hall , British Invasion original The Zombies have proven as resilient as their namesakes, with original members Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent proving their vocal and instrumental chops have only improved with age. Now recognized as the forerunner of the U.K. prog-rock movement – influencing everyone from Yes and ELP to Queen – The Zombies were always the Salieri to the Beatles’ Mozart. In fact, Odessey and Oracle, the 1968 album which they are performing the sublime classic “Care of Cell 44” to  the belated hit, “Time of the Season,” recorded in part during the Summer of Love in Abbey Road studios, with the same Studer four-track machine used on Sgt. Pepper.

The slender, still-mop-topped Blunstone’s angelic, yet lived-in vocals have mellowed like a fine wine as the current iteration of the band features longtime member Steve Rodford on drums, Tom Toomey on guitar and recent addition Soren Koch on bass. They Zombies’ four-song intro includes two of their stateside hits, breakup tunes “Tell Her No” and “She’s Not There,” sandwiched around two newer songs, “Edge of the Rainbow,” from the band’s acclaimed 2015 comeback, Still Got That Hunger,” and a just-completed, brand-new number, “Merry Go Round,” in which Argent’s signature jazzy organ break emulates the ride itself. Argent explains the band “still gets a kick out of playing the old stuff [because] it allows us to write new music.”

Bringing on original members bassist Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy (guitarist and longtime label A&R exec Paul Atkinson passed away in 2004), as well as Brian Wilson band member Darian Sahanaja on keyboards, The Zombies turn into a chamber-pop ensemble, starting with the venerable music hall feel of “Care of Cell 44” and the swooning “A Rose for Emily,” which draws a direct parallel to both Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys and the Kinks at their most winsome. “Beechwood Park” takes its place alongside both Itchycoo and MacArthur, with Argent’s dark-toned organ. Chris White’s confessional vocals highlight both the longing of “Brief Candles” and the anti-war sentiments of “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” the latter a direct line to the likes of Mumford & Sons and the Decemberists. Likewise, Rod Argent’s jaunty vocals on the insistent chant, “I Want Her, She Wants Me,” seem to anticipate the arch theatricality of Freddie Mercury, while his chunky piano and Mellotron solo on “Hung Up on a Dream” echo the vivid watercolors of “Eleanor Rigby.” 

Brian Wilson
Michelle Shiers
– Brian Wilson

Ditto the “Penny Lane” synth bugles on “This Will Be Our Year,” which served as an apt description of the past 12 months for the Zombies, perhaps the only act still willing to perform at Woodstock 50. “Friends of Mine” shows a McCartney-like facility with melody, a nod to Sondheim/Styne’s hit Broadway tune from “Gypsy,” “Together (Wherever We Go),” originally sung by Ethel Merman, to a faintly martial Grundy beat. By the time The Zombies got to the set- closing “Time of the Season,” the surprise 1969 hit which followed their demise – and the formation of Argent by Rod and Chris White. Argent’s keyboard riff is perhaps the most recognizable in rock next to Ray Manzarek’s in “Light My Fire,” and it spurred a standing ovation for the venerable group.

Continuing the tour’s overall theme, Brian Wilson – having closed the chapter on live performances of Pet Sounds – decided to spotlight two lesser-known Beach Boys albums in 1968’s Friends (seven songs) and 1971’s Surf’s Up (four songs), backing up the ensemble with ex-band members Al Jardine (along with his son Matt) and Blondie Chaplin as well as, most unlikely of all, was surprise guest Billy Idol, who joined for the 1-2 punch of “Surfin U.S.A.” and “Fun Fun Fun.” Along with ex-Wondermints keyboardist Sahanaja, drummer Mike D’Amico and guitar/horn player Probyn Gregory (keyboardist Nicky Wonder passed away in August), the line-up also included guitarist Rob Bonfiglio, keyboardist Gary Griffin, bassist Bob Lizik and percussionist Jim Laspesa.

With the 77-year-old Brian Wilson sitting center-stage behind a grand piano he rarely if ever plays during the show, it’s always touch and go whether you’ll be seeing the deer-caught-in-the-headlines version or one moderately engaged in what’s going on around him. These shows are more like tributes or even a juke-box musical, with the honoree in the middle, taking a verse before allowing the high notes to be hit by a combination of either Al Jardine, his son (for the real high notes in “Don’t Worry Baby” or “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”) or Darian the evening’s MVP, who emulates Carl Wilson’s high clear tenor on “Darlin’” (from ‘67’s Wild Honey) and “I Can Hear Music.”

After getting the crowd warmed up with “California Girls,” “I Get Around” and a keening “Don’t Worry Baby,” Brian takes his first lead vocal of the night on “Meant for You,” the first track on the unappreciated Friends, a gentle, lo-fi album influenced by their studies with the Maharishi that flopped commercially,” followed by the title track (“We’ve been together through
the good times and tears”), the Al Jardine co-write “Wake the World” and, in one of the evening’s most moving moments, “Busy Doin’ Nothin’,” a song Wilson describes as “about the directions to my house.”

That Brian was on tour at all was a bit of a miracle, citing mental health struggles for postponing several tour dates earlier this summer, which was reportedly a lot more serious than many realized. The Latin bossa nova feel and flute solo lent it a melancholy feel. “That’s a good one, Brian,” concluded Al Jardine afterwards. Blunstone and Argent join the band for what Al Jardine calls, “Sir Paul’s favorite son,” a soaring version of “God Only Knows,” Probyn Gregory’s French horn solo a standout.

Blondie Chaplin, resplendent in a canary-yellow suit and rock star swagger, brought the R&B and electric guitar pyrotechnics to his “Surf’s Up” medley, channeling Carl’s lovely “Feel Flows” and “Long Promised Road” (Brian taking a verse) before a show-stopping version of

“Sail On Sailor,” which Brian introduces matter-of-factly, “I wrote this song in Danny Hutton’s house in the ‘70s.” The spirit of brother Dennis is evoked in another “Friends: track, “Little Bird,” before the eerie instrumental “Diamond Head,” like a tropical storm on the horizon. Matt Jardine takes the high notes on the final “Friends” track, “Passing By.” The “Surf’s Up” segment is next, and it is one of the evening’s true highlights, the exquisite, wrenching “Till I Die” leading into the majestic title track, Matt Jardine taking the high notes, Brian crooning the alternate verses like Bing Crosby, before the proletarian blues of Al Jardine’s unlikely protest song, “Lookin’ At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song).”

From there, it’s all hits all the time, the barbershop quartet interlude of “Heroes and Villains,” a Smile highlight, into a rollicking “Good Vibrations,” honking sax solos on “Help Me Rhonda” and “Barbara Ann,” and it that doesn’t get the crowd on its feet, surely the sight of punk-rockin’ Billy Idol singing the joys or surfing and “Fun Fun Fun” was enough to send the crowd home satisfied, especially with the final nod to Brian’s beloved “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The entire group then gathers around Brian at the piano and turns in an a cappella “In My Room” that would’ve moved the most cynical observer. Oh sure, Brian can’t hit the high notes anymore, and more often then not looks disengaged up on-stage, but the current iteration of his band has turned his oeuvre into the 21st century version of classical music, a pocket orchestra that pays tribute to that music in the only way they know how. By playing their asses off. By the end of the night, Brian turned the vast expanse of the Greek Theater on a perfect So Cal summer night into his own room. He and we were home at last.

The Zombies:
Tell Her No
Merry Go Round (new song)
Edge of the Rainbow
She’s Not There
Odessey & Oracle
Care of Cell 44
A Rose for Emily
Maybe After He’s Gone
Beechwood Park
Brief Candles
Hung Up On a Dream
I Want Her, She Wants Me
Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)
Friends of Mine
Time of the Season

Brian Wilson:
California Girls
I Get Around
Don’t Worry Baby
Darlin’ (Wild Honey)
Meant for You (Friends)
Friends (Friends)
Wake the World (Friends)
Busy Doin’ Nothin’ (Friends)
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Sloop John B
God Only Knows
Feel Flows (Surf’s Up)
Long Promised Road (Surf’s Up)
Sail On Sailor
I Can Hear Music
Little Bird (Friends)
Diamond Head (Friends)
Passing By (Friends)
Until I Die (Surf’s Up)
Lookin’ At Tomorrow (The Welfare Song) (Surf’s Up)
Heroes and Villains
Good Vibrations
Help Me Rhonda
Barbara Ann
Surfin’ USA
Fun Fun Fun
In My Room