South Street in Morristown, NJ is bustling with the strains of music emanating from passing cars, orchestrating a kaleidoscopic soundtrack to Fall on this crisp October 12, 2021 evening. The sidewalk welcomes outdoor diners as well as patrons who enjoy ice cream treats at the local creamery before heading steps down the street to MPAC — the Mayo Performing Arts Center — and a live performance by Brian Wilson and his band.
Brian Wilson’s musical journey began in a home in Hawthorne, CA that was filled with music. As a toddler, Brian loved listening to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Both his mother and father played the piano and, as a youngster, Brian started singing harmonies with his younger brothers, Carl and Dennis.
As a teen growing up in the ’50s, Wilson became obsessed with the harmonic blend of vocal groups like The Four Freshmen. In the early ’60s, in order to create his own songs, he combined the multi-part vocal harmonies of the vocal groups he loved with the rock rhythms of artists like Chuck Berry. It is said that his first original melody was based on Dion and The Belmonts’ version of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” a song which was ultimately destined to become “Surfer Girl.”
Barely out of his teens, Brian created some of the most beloved pop recordings of all time — “I Get Around,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and “California Girls” — songs which he developed with his band, The Beach Boys. The group not only included Brian’s brothers Carl and Dennis, but also his cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine.
In 1966, at the age of 23, Wilson looked beyond the commercial success generated from the over two-dozen Top 40 hits he’d helped to engineer and sought to expand his artistic horizons with the creation of Pet Sounds, considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest albums. At the same time, he also created what many consider to be his masterpiece — his recording of “Good Vibrations” — widely acclaimed as one of the finest works of the rock era.
As Brian spent more and more time in the recording studio, The Beach Boys continued to perform on the road with a variety of musicians — notably Bruce Johnston — joining the band. During the early 1970s, South African musician Blondie Chaplin joined the group as a guitarist and also sang lead on several Wilson compositions including “Sail On Sailor.”
In 1988, Wilson released his first solo album, Brian Wilson, which featured one of his signature songs, “Love and Mercy.” With the release of Imagination in 1998, Wilson started to consistently perform live for the first time in decades. He soon teamed up with members of the L.A. band, The Wondermints — a combo which featured keyboardist Darian Sahanaja — to create his own group, The Brian Wilson Band.
On Wednesday, October 12, 2021, Brian Wilson and his band made a stop at MPAC in Morristown, NJ, for a performance of Wilson’s Greatest Hits Live show featuring special guests Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin.
Outside MPAC, theatergoers have their vaccination cards and IDs checked by friendly staff members who remind them that face coverings must be worn in the venue at all times except when eating or drinking. Inside the stunning MPAC auditorium, music lovers listen to pre-recorded orchestral versions of Beach Boys’ tunes which — along with the royal purple illuminated velvet curtain — help increase the audience’s anticipation for tonight’s musical event.
The members of the crowd cheer and immediately leap to their feet when the curtain rises to reveal Brian Wilson seated at his white grand piano backed by band members Gary Griffin on keyboards, Probyn Gregory on guitar, Darian Sahanaja on keyboards, Jim Laspesa on percussion, Matt Jardine on guitar, Mike D’Amico on drums, Al Jardine on guitar, Bob Lizik on bass, Rob Bonfiglio on guitar, and Paul Von Mertens on woodwinds.
The audience claps along as the theater comes alive with the feel-good vibrations and intricate vocal harmonies of “California Girls.” The crowd sings along on the “I wish they all could be California Girls” refrain as the years begin to melt away.
Lights pulsate and change colors as drums roll and the theater rocks to Wilson’s lead vocal on “Dance, Dance, Dance.” The twang of guitars and eight-part harmonies are featured on “I Get Around” as audience members embrace Wilson and his voice like one big group hug.
“Thank you!” exclaims Wilson as the band jumps right into a carefree rendition of “Little Deuce Coup” which gets audience members’ heads bopping. Al Jardine handles the lead on a lively arrangement of “Help Me Rhonda” where Paul Von Mertens plays a wailing sax solo and the crowd claps along.
“We’re going to do one of Brian’s favorite songs,” announces Jardine as the group performs a lesser-known Beach Boys’ tune, “Salt Lake City” — an upbeat rocker which features vibraphone, bells, bari sax, and a live fade-out ending.
Brian introduces the next number himself, revealing, “Here’s the first song I ever wrote. It’s called ‘Surfer Girl.’” Eight-part vocal harmonies lovingly recreate the sound of yesteryear as Wilson and his cadre of talented musicians sing and play with skill, talent, and heart. Wilson follows up by singing lead on “In My Room” and earns a standing ovation from music lovers in the crowd.
Al Jardine addresses the audience, recalling, “We wrote this one a long time ago.” Here, Al, Brian, and the band perform the bouncy “Wake the World” which leads into “Add Some Music to Your Day,” a number which features cascading background vocal harmonies, Paul Von Mertins on flute, and Matt Jardine’s falsetto voice floating high above the other singers.
Al Jardine introduces his son, Matt, who takes his turn in the spotlight singing lead on “Don’t Worry Baby,” before Al takes over on “California Saga: California.” The audience happily claps along on the “Water, water/Get yourself in the cool, clear, water” refrain on this folksy ditty.
Keyboardist Darian Sahanaja performs a soulful vocal rendition of “Darlin’” making the song his own while backed by The Brian Wilson Band’s “wall of sound” which not only features multiple horns and guitars, but doubled tambourines.
After Al Jardine announces, “We just added this one to the set,” Brian sings lead on the lovely ballad, “Please Let Me Wonder,” as swirls of colored lights diffuse into mist above the stage.
Brian also sings lead on the irresistible “Do You Wanna Dance?” and audience members respond to his query by dancing at their seats before Al introduces Blondie Chaplin. Bringing a new sound and groove to the stage, Chaplin performs “Feel Flows” where he sings and plays guitar with feeling — moving sensually at the foot of the stage and inspiring avid applause from the crowd.
Chaplin handles lead on the rock ballad, “Long Promised Road,” before launching into his signature Beach Boys’ number, “Sail On Sailor.” The music sails out over the audience with waves of aural delight as Mike D’Amico’s drums pound like the surf and Darian Sahanaja’s keyboards swell. On this 12/8 rocker, Chaplin plays a screaming guitar solo to the song’s pulsating boogie feel leaving the audience standing and cheering for more.
Wilson takes over and gets heads bopping and toes tapping to the ultra-catchy “It’s OK,” as he sings, “Good or bad, glad or sad, it’s all gonna pass/So it’s OK, let’s all play and enjoy it while it lasts.”
He follows up by singing “Do It Again” with Matt Jardine excelling vocally on the high parts and Paul Von Mertins rockin’ on bari sax. Lights flash in sync as kaleidoscopic vocal harmonies swirl.
His voice clear, strong, and soulful, Darian Sahanaja captures the spirit of Carl Wilson on “I Can Hear Music.” Audience members joyfully clap along on the “I hear the music all the time” interlude before cheering and applauding for Sahanaja and the band.
Matt Jardine is featured on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” which has audience members standing and dancing along before Brian takes over the lead on the dreamy “Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray/It might come true” bridge.
Sahanaja plays vibes and Von Mertins plays mouth organ on “Sloop John B.” Although Brian starts out singing lead, Al Jardine soon takes over on this island-influenced folk song singing “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on” before his son, Matt, takes his turn singing lead and changes the lyric to “This is the best trip I’ve ever been on.”
Audience members love Wilson’s rendition of “God Only Knows.” Even though his vocal is highly syncopated, it’s nonetheless poignant and touching as Brian sings “God only knows what I’d do without you” on this song which is so closely associated with his late brother, Carl.
The vocal canon at the end elicits yet another standing ovation.
“Thank you!” declares Brian, before exclaiming, “Good vibes!” as the band launches into a live version of his masterpiece, “Good Vibrations.” The audience sings along on every word of this “pocket symphony” which has vocal harmonies swirling, heads bopping, and lights creating rays of color that drench the stage.
On its feet, the crowd roars, and Paul Von Mertins says, “We are loving playing music for you. It feels good!” After thanking MPAC and the crew, Von Mertins introduces the members of the band and ends by announcing, “Here’s the man who brings this all together with his heart, his soul, and his music — Brian Wilson.”
The crowd cheers, and Brian and his friends continue the party with “Barbara Ann,” where the crowd is “rockin’ and a-reelin’” to this Beach Boys’ classic. The love grows even stronger when the guys segue into a soaring rendition of “Surfin’ USA.”
Large yellow happy face balloons make an appearance alongside actual happy faces as twangy guitars, a honking bari sax, and Brian’s lead vocal are featured on “Fun, Fun, Fun.”
After the audience rocks out, the band concludes the number with a clever Gershwin-inspired Rhapsody in Blue ending. The crowd stands and cheers for this iconic musician and his band.
For an encore, Brian sings a compelling version of “Love and Mercy.” Giving his fans all the love and mercy they need, band members gather around the piano and harmonize as Brian provides a heartfelt ending to an amazing evening, bringing all present to their feet one last time as the curtain closes.
As we make our way out of the MPAC auditorium and back onto South Street, we chat with several members of the audience who share their opinions of tonight’s performance by Brian Wilson and Co.
Teresa from Bloomingdale declares, “I loved this show! I’ve been a Beach Boys fan for life, and I live for music, so to have live music back is a blessing,” before adding, “I also work in a hospital, so what MPAC is doing here is a really good thing — requiring masks, vaccinations, and everything they can — to help prevent the spread of the COVID virus.”
Rose Ann from Manchester agrees, exclaiming, “I had a lot of fun, and there was a lot of energy in the air! I loved all the songs — even the few I didn’t know.” Continuing, “I’m so glad to be back in the theater,” Rose Ann contends, “and I’m very comfortable here at MPAC. I like the vaccination check and I have no trouble wearing a mask,” concluding, “It was well worth the trip for me.”
Jo-Marie from Chester remarks, “We really enjoyed the show tonight!” noting, “They handle the COVID protocols really well here at MPAC. I feel totally comfortable here, and it’s so nice to be out and be able to do things again.” Her husband, Dan, concurs, adding, “It’s nice getting back to living, and it was especially great getting to see an icon like Brian Wilson. Seeing him again brings me right back to my childhood.”
Explains Jim from Jefferson, “It felt so good to be back inside a theater again. This show was unbelievable — the harmonies sounded like a choir, and the arrangements were so innovative.” Jim’s adult son, Jimmy, agrees, declaring, “It was wonderful — Brian was having a blast! You can tell he just loves music, and Blondie Chaplin was a real trip — he was really rockin’ and rollin’” before recalling, “The first concert I ever went to was The Beach Boys at Yankee Stadium with my dad, so it was especially great to be here with my dad again tonight.”
Lastly, we chat with a group of three friends including Sue from Hoboken who remarks, “Brian Wilson sounded awesome tonight — to me, he is the voice of The Beach Boys!” Andy from Belmar asserts, “We loved this show!” explaining, “We’re music geeks, and we can tell you that the harmonies and musicianship onstage were just incredible.” Robert from Jersey City concurs, noting, “The Beach Boys’ music is some of the most complicated music you can play,” before concluding, “Brian Wilson is the genius behind it. He’s just legendary!”
To learn more about Brian Wilson, please go to brianwilson.com. For information on upcoming concerts at MPAC — including Little Feat on Nov. 13, Boyz II Men on Nov. 20, and Max Weinberg’s Jukebox on Dec. 11 — please click on mayoarts.org.
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