Friday, Aug. 9, 2019 must have been a difficult night for the Brian Wilson tour. Brian and his band the Zombies were performing at the Del Lago Casino, just off the Thruway in Tyre, N.Y., three days after their long-time guitarist, Nicky “Wonder” Walusko, had died in his sleep near Lewiston, N.Y. That was where the band had kicked off its new tour the very day after Walusko died, dedicating that show to him.
So the del Lago performance was their second without him, and I was there. The stage was still mostly dark as the band filtered on. The scattered applause picked up as Brian appeared, supported on either side by an aide, guiding him to his center stage seat at the piano. Once settled, he announced they were dedicating this night’s show to Nicky, then launched into their first number, “California Girls.”
“Love and Mercy” might have been a more appropriate tribute, and indeed, an hour and a half later, the band closed with that. But then again, maybe “California Girls” was right. Walusko’s enthusiasm for the Smile recordings is what piqued Brian’s interest in completing them and staging his recent tours. Maybe playing the Beach Boys sound that had captivated Walusko as a kid, the sound he helped recreate for the Smile album and the touring band, maybe that was the best tribute.
At any rate, when I came to the show, I knew Brian’s one-time guitarist had died, but I didn’t know he was supposed to be in this show. That dawned on me when I noticed the guitar and floral arrangement spotlighted in the group’s back line. A few songs in, the band’s horn player gave a longer tribute to Walusko, filling in some of the gaps of Brian’s abrupt dedication. But it took a search on the Web to fully understood what was going on.
And that was the show in a nutshell. The music was performed beautifully, the harmonies shimmering in fine pitch above the bedrock rhythms of the 10-piece band, which included original Beach Boy Al Jardine and jumped to 11 pieces when Blondie Chaplin joined in. Brian’s familiar timbre was recognizable when he sang lead, and the occasional missed pitch and shortened phrase was forgiven—I mean, good for him, he’s out there doing it.
But Brian didn’t appear to have full mental fitness—not really a news flash, I suppose—and that infused the show with an odd tentativeness. Brian is much loved and much admired for his catalog of infectious songs that populated his performance, and for the production techniques he pioneered in the 1960s that still inspire today. You could see that in the audience members who got up and danced despite the grip of age and gravity that would normally leave them seated. You could sense it in the band, whose members occasionally leaned down to Brian, perhaps checking on his welfare, perhaps reminding him that he was singing the next song.
And there was Brian, sitting behind a piano that blocked the view of his hands, rather than sitting sideways as most singing piano players do. On some songs, his arms didn’t move, and with as many as three keyboardists playing on any given number, he didn’t really need to play. His face was consistently expressionless. When Blondie Chaplin sang a few songs, Brian appeared to sit it out, gazing rather vacantly at random points in the audience. Occasionally he spoke before a song, once introducing the next singer, but failing to give the singer’s name! Another band member snuck it in just before the song kicked off. They know how to cover for their boss!
About 30 or 40 minutes in, an inner alarm went off telling me that I pretty much wanted the show to end. I’d now seen Brian Wilson (I’d never seen him before), heard a few of his hits done very credibly, recognized that he was sticking pretty close to the original arrangements, and realized there probably weren’t going to be any more surprises.
Turns out I was glad to hear the run of fun hits that ended the show. Still, I was left wondering, does Brian even want to do this? What does he get from it? The most excitement he showed all night was moving his slightly raised arms fore and back like an awkward sock puppet trying to find the rhythm to the rocked up solo in “Barbara Ann.”
Perhaps he’s making up for all the lost time when he didn’t tour. Maybe part of his desired legacy is to see that he sings before as many of his fans as possible.
Then again, maybe he’s one of those elderly folks who didn’t know how to say, “No” to the high-pressure salesman on the phone.
Brian didn’t spill his heart at del Lago. He and his band just performed his songs pretty darn well, if somewhat predictably. Yes, if Brian had been more present, the show might have become an outright rally for this rock legend. But that wasn’t the case, and when the two aides took Brian’s arms after the last song to walk him offstage past the Nicky Walusko memorial tribute, we knew there wasn’t going to be an encore.
Brian Wilson and the Zombies Set List
I Get Around
My Little Duece Coupe
You’re My Baby ?
Little Surfer Girl
Salt Lake City
Wake the World / Add Some Music
Don’t Worry Baby
Feel Flows (By Carl Wilson)
Sail On Sailor
Do It Again
Let Him Run Wild
Wouldn’t it be Nice
Sloop John B
God Only Knows
All Summer Long
Help Me Rhonda
Fun, Fun, Fun
Love and Mercy