With the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson created some of sunniest and giddiest music in the history of pop. He also crafted some of the saddest. How would he play his first ever Christmas show?
The opening night of Wilson's inaugural Yule tour on Wednesday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis was far from jingle all the way. In fact, it had all the makings of a blue Christmas and it's not because the songs were sad. Being in the presence of a genius is one thing but being entertained is another. If Christmas is about comfort and joy, then Wilson seemed uncomfortable and unjoyful.
Long suffering from mental illness, drug abuse and bad treatments, the 76-year-old seemed listless as he sat at a grand piano that he rarely played. His band seemed more tentative than tight, many players unsure of themselves, including Al Jardine, the only other original Beach Boy on board.
At one point, Jardine, trying to get Wilson involved, asked the popmeister if he had recorded one or two Christmas albums. "One," said Wilson, a man of few words. "Actually two."
The concert was billed as a recreation of 1964's "Beach Boys Christmas Album." But the 12-man band also mixed in tunes from Wilson's 2005 solo album, "What I Really Want for Christmas."
About half the material in the 55-minute holiday set was composed by Wilson, kicking off with "Little St. Nick," the Beach Boys' essential contribution to the Christmas canon. The tune was lively and Wilson sang with a modicum of enthusiasm and volume but his voice was colorless.
The affectless singer bobbed his head for a bit during the upbeat "Santa's Beard," about his 5½-year-old brother pulling off Santa's beard and wondering if St. Nick is real. Yes, sang Wilson, this is just Santa's helper. But the ditty loses it charm when the singer lacks nuance and conviction.
Despite the festive setting of giant wreathes and lit evergreens, this was turning into perhaps the least joyful Christmas pageant ever.
Blondie Chaplin, a member of the Beach Boys in the early '70s, tried to spark things with a reggae-tinged "Blue Christmas" and a rockin' "Run Rudolph Run," which earned the loudest crowd reaction of the holiday fare. A few other traditional songs such as "We Three Kings" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" received jazzy, close-harmony vocal arrangements inspired by the Four Freshmen (one of Wilson's influences) but there were six guys harmonizing and none of them was Wilson.
After "Run Rudolph Run," the Orpheum's curtain closed and quickly reopened as the 12-man band tore into the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Suddenly, the ensemble was tight, the sounds joyous and the crowd thrilled. A fast-paced half-hour of Beach Boys' classics was the Christmas present these fans needed.
Wilson even played a little piano as he sang the majestic love ballad "God Only Knows," tapped his left leg during "I Get Around" and thrust his hands in the air to snap for maybe two measures during "Surfin' U.S.A."
While most of the musicians had toured with Wilson on and off during the past 20 years of his solo career, new was Wilson's son-in-law Rob Bonfiglio, who skillfully handled the high parts that Brian used to sing. All the players huddled around the piano for a closing a cappella reading of "Auld Lang Syne" as Wilson sat there expressionless.
It was a bittersweet to witness this marvelous music performed in the presence of the master who created it but was no longer able to be masterful himself.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719