Brian Wilson performs at the Fox Theater in Detroit on Friday. (Gary Malerba / Special to The Detroit News)
Any doubts about the Brian Wilson-Jeff Beck pairing in concert dissolved Friday night at the Fox Theatre during the later combined set they did, as the British guitarist tore off chunky, scorching riffs while members of Wilson’s backing band sang “Whoa-ohs” in response, in a seamless merger of the British Invasion and the evanescent California sound on “Surf’s Up.”
The unique concert mash-up of ‘60s icons happened after Wilson and Beck started working together in apparent harmony at a Los Angeles studio, on Wilson’s next studio album.
At the Fox, Wilson was accompanied by original Beach Boys Al Jardine and David Marks, giving their early set of Beach Boys material an authenticity that thrilled fans. They were joined by a cadres of Wilson backing musicians who are deft hands at replicating the Beach Boys’ harmonies, as well as the intricate instrumental voicings of such classics as “Good Vibrations.”
These proto-Beach Boys came out singing an a cappella “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring,” then a cheerful Wilson called out “How loud can the girls yell?” from behind his white piano. That kicked off “California Girls,” on which he sang lead. The group rolled through a long list of classic songs, among them “Do It Again,” “Don’t Worry, Baby,” “Darlin’,” “Sail on Sailor,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Fun Fun Fun,” the instrumental “Pet Sounds,” “Heroes and Villains,” “Sloop John B” and “I Get Around.”
Wilson even sang lead on “God Only Knows,” the song he gave to his brother Carl to sing, with his pure, high tenor. But Wilson did it so well, with Jardine and the band adding layers of seraphic harmonies behind him, that it prompted a spontaneous ovation. He dedicated the song to “Skip”— Skip Gildersleeve, a longtime Detroit-based roadie who died in September.
Perhaps because of the absence of Mike Love, off with his own Beach Boys, Wilson does more singing on this tour than he did on the 2012 50th anniversary Beach Boys tour, and while he can’t hit the highest notes of his youth, frequent touring seems to have strengthened his vocals. He reached and found the tenor notes he needed on “God Only Knows.”
Al Jardine has never had any vocal issues, and he sang his customary numbers, including “Help Me, Rhonda,” sounding as strong as ever. He took the lead on an “American medley” including “Old Man River,” and now also sings some of the leads Love is known for, such as ‘I Get Around” (Wilson sang the second verse). Nobody was missed.
David Marks and his Fender Jaguar are fun to watch, particularly when he played those unmistakable surf guitar leads on “I Get Around” “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
After a change of instruments, Jeff Beck took the stage. He is charismatic, but a performer of few words, mostly consisting of “Y’all right?” and “Great to be back here in Detroit.”
He let his guitar do the talking, with fiery runs on “Eternity’s Breath/Stratus” and the blues “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” among others. Beck can sound as tough and raunchy as Keith Richards, but he’s also one of the most melodically gifted guitarists of his generation, bringing tears with the emotion he ekes out of a song such as the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”
Years ago, Beck was asked by a guitar magazine what record he’d want with him if stranded on a desert island. He picked “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys — a masterpiece of harmony and strange sounds, something he knows a bit about.
There are other connections with the Beach Boys, apart from harmony and melody. As Beck played “Big Block” from his “Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop” album, videos streamed on a screen above of him working on and driving his many classic American cars. The guitarist is seen speeding down narrow English lanes in a bright yellow Deuce Coupe (with a California license plate) and a heartbreakingly beautiful early Corvette, among other automotive delights.
The show ended with Wilson and his cohorts joining Beck and his band onstage for an a cappella rendition of “Our Prayer,” then the astonishing “Surf’s Up,” Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Danny Boy,” with Beck delivering one of his most heart-rending solos on the latter.