TAMPA — We are all born with a finite amount of sunsets in us, and Beach Boy Brian Wilson understood this bittersweet notion so well, he tried to capture each one in a song. That's an impossible task, and it took its maddening toll, but man, he came close, didn't he?
At a sold-out Straz Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, the 69-year-old icon, debilitated over the years by mental illness and drug use, wore an unchanging mask of melancholy. And yet every now and then, he caught a small flicker of that fading light. The result? Nothing less than magic.
The Beach Boys are celebrating 50 years together (51 if you want to be technical), and the group's remaining pillars — Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and guitarist David Marks — are giving it one last go, a smart, fun, two-hour-plus gig that merges hang-ten hits (Surfin' U.S.A., California Girls) with paisley-swirled '60s ground-breakers (Heroes and Villains, I Just Wasn't Made for These Times).
The 2,563 fans in house ate it up — beach bums and music scholars alike — but rest assured this wasn't some moldy oldies gig; Wilson's unlikely inclusion made sure of that. First of all, despite his seeming apathy, Wilson remains a sonic control freak, so his usual solo-touring crew, 10 of the finest musicians on the planet, backed up the Beach Boys, switching gears from Little Deuce Coupe to the wilder Sail on, Sailor to the exploding planets of an encore Good Vibrations.
But more than that, Wilson hasn't really toured with the Beach Boys for more than four decades. Four decades!!! There have been lawsuits and accusations in between, related show-biz ugliness that betrays the shimmering glow of the Boys' high-holy harmonies. Truth be told, this is a history lesson that may never come around again.
Each guy got a turn at the microphone: Wilson took You're So Good to Me, Love hammed up Be True to Your School, Jardine chirped Then I Kissed Her. Seated behind a white baby grand, Wilson would take a few songs off — just kind of sit there, maybe hit a key now and then — and then decide to rejoin the show.
The set list was halved into loose themes: surfing and cars and early innocence (Wilson dusted off The Little Girl I Once Knew), a short intermission, then the triptastic Pet Sounds stuff and an endless finale of hits. Okay, it wasn't all spectacular (cough, Kokomo, cough). And Love, 71, has these minimalist dance moves (a tiny hula here, the ever-popular finger wag there) that make me want to punch something.
Regardless, it was hard not to fall in love all over again. Especially when the late Dennis Wilson and Carl Wilson were allowed to "sing" their own songs — Dennis on Forever, Carl on the life-affirming God Only Knows — as the rest of the Beach Boys cooed and oohed.
Well, the rest of the Beach Boys except for one: Brian stopped doing much of anything when his brothers were on. He simply watched the grainy images of his late sibs play upon a video screen. He didn't smile, he didn't sing, he didn't cry. He just stared, waiting for one more sunset to shake him from his stupor.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.