It took 16 songs, a 20-minute intermission and a rousing round of Row, Row, Row Your Boat to get Brian Wilson fully warmed up.
But then came the reason a sold-out house had packed the Mahaffey Theater Tuesday night: A farewell, 50th anniversary performance of the Beach Boys' epic album Pet Sounds.
"It's a very artistic album," Wilson said by way of introduction.
Yeah, and the Sistine Chapel has a pretty nice paint job.
At 74, Wilson may be an irreparably damaged soul, emotionally distant, with zero interest in dissecting his sizeable legacy. He rarely seems engaged in his live performances, even as he tours harder than ever (Tuesday's show was his fifth in Tampa Bay since 2011). Pulling the shade on Pet Sounds, well, that's a move one makes near the end.
But hearing the iconic album end to end in St. Petersburg, with all its literal bells and whistles brought to magnificent, three-dimensional life by Wilson's stellar backing band — up to 11 players at times, including Beach Boys cohorts Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin — you were reminded anew of how fresh it once felt in 1966, how fresh it still feels today, and how fresh it'll feel long after Wilson's touring days are done.
Before the main course came an opening set loaded with rev-'em-up Beach Boys hits — California Girls, I Get Around, Little Deuce Coupe — and a few that portended Wilson's compositional genius to come, like In My Room and Don't Worry Baby. Sitting at a piano and staring mostly straight ahead, Wilson sang when he wanted to, but often ceded lead duties to Jardine and his son, Matt Jardine, who shown on the unmistakably Beach Boyish falsettos Wilson once made his own.
There were a few twists and turns in the hit parade, from the funky surprise addition Salt Lake City ("We practiced it today, and we're going to perform it for you tonight," Wilson said) and Al Jardine-led medley of Wake the World and Add Some Music to Your Day to a suite of songs led by Chaplin, including Sail Away, Wild Honey and Sail On, Sailor. Chaplin, 65, counteracted Wilson's stony stoicism with cat-on-the-prowl panache, wiggling and sashaying like his onetime bandmate Mick Jagger, letting his guitar scream out loud, infusing this supposed rock show with a little rock attitude.
Then, at 8:43 p.m., the needle dropped on Pet Sounds.
Here was everything Wilson, lyricist Tony Asher and studio legends the Wrecking Crew brought to life, revived once for this tour, one last time with feeling. Wouldn't It Be Nice: Hopeful, dreamy, the anthem of a believer. You Still Believe In Me: A wavy reverie of horns, harpsichords and twinkling bicycle bells. That's Not Me: A gentle drift of melody and harmony across a bed of clip-clopping clicks.
The album will never again sound just like it did in 1966. Wilson's once-vulnerable voice has been blunted by pressure and time; when he sings without backing harmonies, as Pet Sounds often demands, his delivery is wooden, clipped, occasionally just off key, like a lounge singer long past his prime. At times it seemed he might've missed a cue, with Matt Jardine leaping in to take the lead. Time is cruel, and does not yield to genius.
But Pet Sounds is so deep and textured an album — and Wilson's band so strong — that its gorgeous complexities quickly wash over any imperfections. Every time you'd scan the stage, you'd see bandmates playing a new instrument you hadn't seen before — Al Jardine on banjo for I Know There's An Answer; musical director Paul Von Mertens whipping from flute to clarinet to bass harmonica; multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory conjuring a theremin and French horn. Pet Sounds' two instrumental tracks were unimpeachable: Let's Go Away For A While, an exotica-laced interlude as evocative of the beach as any summer hit Wilson ever penned; and the hypnotically loopy title track, with five members on percussion, including Chaplin on tambourine.
And Wilson, the architect of it all, had his role, too. His fragile voice embodied the heart of I Just Wasn't Made For These Times and the album's devastating closer Caroline No ("Where is the girl I used to know? How could you lose that happy glow?"). And then there was God Only Knows — not only a perfect pop song, but the perfect pop song, full stop — with Wilson's voice reaching tenderly for the higher plane once occupied by his younger brother Carl. This is the stuff you don't get when you go to see Mike Love's Beach Boys. For better and worse, it is Wilson's.
Wilson came out for an encore, an uplifting coda of rah-rah hits (Good Vibrations, Help Me Rhonda, Barbara Ann, Surfin' USA, Fun, Fun, Fun) that had the whole band spinning and grinning, and the multi-generational audience kicking up their heels in the aisles. Wilson, stone-faced as always, at times looked lost and forgotten in the shuffle.
But then the show closed with Love and Mercy, perhaps Wilson's most beloved non-Beach Boys single. With nine voices harmonizing behind him, Wilson delivered his best vocal performance of the night. It was gentle and heartfelt and real, just like so much of Pet Sounds.
"We're going to do our best to make you happy," Wilson said at the outset of Tuesday's show.
That much was inevitable. But in the end, one emotion wasn't enough. Everyone left feeling so much more.
-- Jay Cridlin