As the dust settles on the 2016 California Mid-State Fair, my mind keeps drifting back to a comforting memory: angelic voices soaring over a rich tapestry of sound.
I was among the lucky concertgoers who saw Brian Wilson, the cofounder, co-lead singer and chief songwriter of legendary rock band The Beach Boys, perform July 29 in Paso Robles as part of the fair’s Evening of Wine and Music.
His concert at the Chumash Grandstand Arena wrapped up a series of shows by high-profile acts that included pop star Fergie, rock supergroup Hollywood Vampires and country icons Tim McGraw and Blake Shelton.
Compared to those gimmick-packed performances, Wilson’s concert was enjoyably low key.
Clad in a plaid button-up shirt and jeans, Wilson walked to his baby grand piano, sat down and uttered an introduction that would amount to his longest speech of the night: “Paso Robles, thank you all for coming to the show! How loud can the girls yell? How long can the boys yell?”
Wilson and his 10-piece backing band, which included former Beach Boys guitarists Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, kicked off the concert with an oddball selection — “Do You Like Worms?” — followed by a cover of “River Deep — Mountain High,” co-written by one of Wilson’s contemporaries, Phil Spector.
But it was an upbeat rendition of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” that finally got the crowd clapping and swaying. As that classic song kicked into full gear, it was clear Wilson had assembled a crack team to tackle one of the finest song catalogues from rock ‘n’ roll’s golden era.
In quick succession, Wilson and his band played a series of Beach Boys favorites, including “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “Do You Want to Dance,” “Surfer Girl” and “Don’t Worry Baby.” Jardine’s son, Matt Jardine, handled the falsetto vocals with aplomb.
“I Get Around” shifted the mostly middle-aged audience members, many of them dressed in Hawaiian shirts, shorts and sundresses, out of their seats. As two women sporting squid hats lead an impromptu conga line past concertgoers dancing and bouncing beach balls, my husband turned to me and announced, beaming, “I am very happy right now.”
Al Jardine, who wore a wild paisley shirt and khaki pants, sounded strong as he took center stage on “California Saga,” inspiring cheers when he sang “Have you ever been north of Morro Bay?” And Chaplin, sporting a green tiedye shirt and tight black jeans, blew away the crowd with his bluesy vocals and guitar artistry during his starring turn on “Sail On Sailor.”
Wilson, in contrast, seemed a bit tired. But he didn’t let his obvious exhaustion stop him and the band from powering through the entirity of “Pet Sounds,” considered one of the Beach Boys’ best albums.
While Wilson’s rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” faltered, the rest of “Pet Sounds” — including “Caroline No,” “God Only Knows,” “Here Today,” “I’m Waiting for the Day,” “Sloop John B” and “You Still Believe in Me” — sounded as spectacular as ever.
For an encore, Wilson and Co. turned to a couple of rock standards that got concertgoers grooving: “Good Vibrations” and “Help Me Rhonda.” The concert closed with Wilson once again taking the lead for his song “Love and Mercy” — coincidentally, the title of the 2014 biopic that dealt with Wilson’s struggles with mental illness and drug addiction.
As he sang “Love and mercy, that’s what we need tonight,” a happy hush settled over the arena. We sat, or stood and swayed, rapt in the magic of Wilson’s music.