CLEARWATER — It was a seance really, a bit of beach bonfire voodoo, a conjuring of ghosts from a perfect pop past. Brian Wilson, 69 years old and clinging to vestiges of his glorious Brian Wilson-ness, was perched, somewhat palsied, at a keyboard that was plugged in but barely played.
His face was forlorn. His gaze lost. His arms drooped. His shuffling on and off the stage was a reminder that our time with the genius is limited. His opening remarks: "I forgot the name of the city. What's this city?"
And yet when the tortured, tragic architect of the SoCal surf sound opened his mouth to sing Saturday at a near-capacity Ruth Eckerd Hall — and when his phenomenal nine-piece band opened their mouths, as well — those high holy harmonies of Beach Boys classics became supernaturally powerful. It transcended mere "oldies" show and became something far more tingly.
The two-hour-plus, 40-some-song set list was built perfectly: the rush of high tide (the opening California Girls, Then I Kissed Her, the gorgeous In My Room), the calm of low tide (cuts from new album Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin). And finally the wallop of a hurricane party. (Good Vibrations is the most life-affirming song ever. Discuss.)
Save for those Fabs across the pond, as a pop composer, Wilson is peerless. So the true joy of the evening was watching the masterpieces get built, such as the intricate tempo and mood changes in the mind-altering, Smile-d up version of Heroes and Villains. I also loved it when Wilson, with nothing to do, simply turned and watched his tireless crew unload the loopy instrumental Pet Sounds, a neat treat there. Life and death and drugs and a lousy dad kept Wilson on edge for years. And yet there's a peace that washes over him when his music plays.
Wilson is no braggart; there's no ego up in that giant granite head. And yet, when he asked the crowd to join him in Row, Row, Row Your Boat, he was actually giving a sly tutorial in how he did what he did. When it was over, there was a slow dawning among the tickled throngs: I just harmonized with Brian Wilson.
There's still a curious spice to Wilson's voice, that surfer boy determined to prove his point. It strained a few times (You're So Good to Me), but it was mostly spellbinding. Plus so good was his supporting staff, the show lost no momentum when his cohorts took the occasional lead, as Jeff "the CEO of Falsetto" Foskett did on Wouldn't It Be Nice.
Wilson's late brother Carl originally took the lead on the heart-breaking God Only Knows. But now Brian sings it, and Saturday's performance was so fragile, so delicately emotional — a highlight and then some — there was a pause afterward in which the crowd wasn't sure what to do. And how about that? Every now and then, no matter how old you are, no matter what bit of nastiness life has served up, you can still catch a wave and sit, one last time, on top of the world.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. You can also follow him on Twitter (@seandalypoplife).