by Sam Juliano
Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson performed at the newly-renovated Wellmont on Sunday night in front of a packed crowd. His band, recently called “the best touring rock musicians in the world” by Paul McCartney, helped breathe life into both popular songs from the 60’s and Wilson’s new album, That Lucky Old Sun. Wilson, who made a comeback after a lengthy bout with drugs, obesity and manic depression that nearly cost him his life, sat behind a keyboard, and performed a number of vocals, along with colleague Jeff Foskett, who superbly emulates the singing voice of Brian from the early years. Foskett’s spirited reading of the best song the Beach Boys ever wrote, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, is front of a swirling psychedelic screen of colors and moving images, was one of the concert’s finest moments.
Wilson, who received a thunderous ovation from both middle-aged and young rock fans, quickly announced that he was going to devote the first half of the program to early Beach Boys favorites like Surfer Girl, Fun Fun Fun, I Get Around, God Only Knows, California Girls, In My Room, Sloop John B, and their biggest hit of all, Good Vibrations, and the second half to the new album. Utilizing an array of performers (many were Montclair locals) which included a small string section at the back of the stage, Wilson effectively had others bring back that special sound that originated in a Hawthorne, California living room and was afterwards synonymous with Pacific beaches. Indeed, Wilson is arguably the greatest composer of American popular music during the rock era, (Paul Simon, Neil Young and a few others would contend for that designation) and the Beach Boys, which included two of his brothers in the five person band, are often referred to as the greatest of all American rock bands, with good reason.
The Wellmont Theatre, whose entrance is right off Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair, was built in 1922 and was converted into a movie house in 1929, where it operated as a single screen until the early 80’s, when it was triplexed. It closed its doors in 2006, and an eight-month renovation blitz ended in the summer with the theatre fully restored to its movie place days. The state-of-the-art acoustics installed yielded extraordinary sound and beckons well for the future concert series over the upcoming months that includes appearances by Duran Duran, Tony Bennett and B.B. King among others.
Wilson’s own voice has lost much of its sheen, but he did well enough with some of the beloved standards, like “God Only Knows” from the masterpiece Pet Sounds album that is rightfully considered one of the greatest in rock history. The excellence of the band and vocalists more than compensated for any age-related degeneration of Wilson. The stage pyrotechnics were most sophisticated right before the break, when Good Vibrations brought the cheering crowd to their feet, clapping and rocking away.
A polyphonic sound that evinces melodic and verbal counterpoint, the very fine new album is a homage to Wilson’s southern California roots. A set of disassociated, yet thematically linked tunes, That Lucky Old Sun includes four poetic “spoken word” narratives, which lend the provocative work a trippy, avant garde edge. The work, simply stated is inspired by “the warmth of the sun.” Written two years ago, when Wilson was 64, it’s a remarkable accomplishment, and is worth a purchase on CD. Wilson and his band presented the full album during the show’s second half, and the audience seemed pleased. The gifted performer/composer and his talented musicians reached their stride in the heavenly bombastic encore cycle, which included Help Me Rhonda, Barbara Ann, Surfin U.S.A., Do You Wanna Dance? and Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode. At that juncture, those young music lovers, seemingly out of their element with the anachronistic thrust of the program, came to life and joined the elder concert-goers who grew up with the group in a frenetic and delirious show of gleeful appreciation.
Note: Lucille and I joined Tony and Sara Lucibello for the Sunday night concert at the Wellmont in Montclair. We all decided against eating out beforehand, so it was a night of all music and reflections in the car on the way home. The Wellmont will no doubt be a showcase in the future for many high-profile events. It’s a grand place.