Chicago launched their co-headlining tour with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys at Ak-Chin Pavilion in Phoenix on Tuesday, June 7, the same day the horn-driven rockers announced the release of a 38th studio album called “Born For This Moment. “
It may not strike the casual observer as one of the world’s most obvious pairings for a summer tour — certainly not as obvious as recent tours pairing Chicago with Earth, Wind & Fire or Wilson with the Zombies.
But there is some history behind it.
In 1974, three Beach Boys — Al Jardine and Wilson’s younger brothers, Dennis and Carl — added harmonies to the Chicago classic “Wishing You Were Here.” A year later, the two groups launched the first of two Beachago tours.
Jardine and several other vocalists from Wilson’s 12-piece touring band joined Chicago on stage at Tuesday’s tour launch to revisit “Wishing You Were Here.”
And Wilson’s set featured a guest spot by three members of Chicago, who added horns to “Darlin’,” a soul-flavored hit from the “Wild Honey” album.
Brian Wilson can be a magical experience
Wilson and his bandmates set the tone for their first appearance in the Valley since that Zombies tour with the Hollyridge Strings’ instrumental recordings of the Beach Boys’ greatest hits.
Led on stage with the help of a walker, Wilson took his place behind the white piano that for many years has served more as a sort of buffer separating Wilson, who turns 80 on June 20, from the audience that comes to see him than an instrument he might be interested in playing.
Wilson famously retired from the road in 1964 after a nervous breakdown on a flight to Houston to open a Beach Boys tour.
Although the man has kept a fairly active touring schedule since the launch of his first solo trek in 1999, he’d never be mistaken for a person who feels comfortable onstage.
He barely moves or says a word and tends to stare into the distance with a blank expression from his seat behind that rarely played piano.
When he sings, he often misses cues or drops the final word or two of individual lines. On “Sloop John B,” he came in early.
The Jardines — Al and his son Matthew — stand by keeping watch, prepared to jump in and take over if the man who wrote so many of the greatest pop songs of his generation doesn’t sing at all.
And yet, for many Wilson fans, myself included, it can be a magical and emotional experience to see him reconnecting with these songs as best he can.
As Wilson’s musical director Paul Von Mertens (who also plays saxophone, clarinet, flute and harmonica) introduced him, Wilson is “the man who brings us all together with his heart, his soul and his music.”
That he is.
And whatever discomfort he seems to be feeling has a way of only adding to the bittersweet appeal of a song like “Love and Mercy,” a heartfelt plea for love and mercy in a world where all the singer sees on TV news are “a lot of people out there hurtin’ and it really scares me.”
His conversational phrasing of the words to “Surfer Girl,” introduced as “the first song I ever wrote,” put an intriguing spin on one of Wilson’s most beloved ballads. It felt like hearing it fresh after hearing it hundreds or thousands of times.
And Wilson really seemed to come alive on “Salt Lake City,” fully invested in bringing those lyrics to life.
Brian Wilson’s tour band shines
It doesn’t hurt that he’s assembled such a stellar touring band, including Al Jardine, a founding member of the Beach Boys, who handled lead vocals on “Help Me, Rhonda” and “Surfin’ Safari,” which he set up with a reference to the of Valley institution, Big Surf closing Waterpark.
“Where are you gonna go surfin’ now?”, Jardine wondered aloud before suggesting we go surfing to some Beach Boys songs.
Another former Beach Boy, introduced by Wilson as “the one and only” Blondie Chaplin, tends to make his first appearance late in Wilson’s set. And Tuesday’s show was no exception.
They’d already made their way through 15 songs when Chaplin hit the stage and promptly stole the show, leading his bandmates in a spirited “Wild Honey,” “Long Promised Road” and “Sail on Sailor,” a song Al Jardine said was one of his favorites.
In addition to his soulful vocals, Chaplin brought a Stonesy swagger to the mix while tearing it up on lead guitar, gleefully standing mere inches from Wilson’s piano. His solo on “Wild Honey” was a masterclass in raunchy brilliance.
Darian Sahanaja of Wondermints, who’s been with Wilson’s touring band since 1999, made the most of two turns in the vocal spotlight — a deeply soulful “Darlin'” and “I Can Hear Music,” a Ronettes song the Beach Boys covered on their” 20/20″ album.
And the vocal glue that holds it all together, as always, was Matthew Jardine.
Any song that required the iconic falsetto that defined so many Beach Boys classics, Matthew nailed, from “I Get Around” to “Help Me, Rhonda.” And he sounded especially angelic on “Don’t Worry Baby” and “God Only Knows.”
Rounding out the touring lineup were guitarist Doug Randell, keyboardist Gary Griffin, bassist Bob Lizik, percussionist Jim Laspesa and two more Wondermints, drummer Mike D’Amico and multi-instrumentalist Probyn Gregory.
It’s a really solid band, providing Wilson everything he needs to do his legend proud. It wasn’t flawless, but considering they haven’t done a concert since October? It was surprisingly tight.
And once the person running sound dials in that vocal blend just right, this tour will only get more magical for Wilson fans, regardless of whether the man of the hour hits his mark.
Chicago celebrates a new album and 55 years together
Chicago had nearly as many musicians on stage as Wilson’s band — 10 in all, including founding members Robert Lamm on keyboards, keytar and vocals, Lee Loughnane on trumpet and vocals, and James Pankow on trombone and larger-than-life personality.
In addition to celebrating their new release, from which they shared a highlight titled “If This Is Goodbye,” they’re celebrating the fact that this year marks their 55th anniversary. And Pankow announced his intention to keep doing this until they take his driver’s license away.
“Little did we know that all these years later, this music would seem to have a life of its own,” Pankow said.
“I’m sure Brian has the same experience. You look into the audience and you see people remembering the moment when they discovered this stuff. Folks will come up to me and say, ‘Jimmy, we grew up with your music.'” And I will say ‘So did I’.”
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Chicago setlist went heavy on the hits
Pankow promised to get to as many of those songs as they could.
And they certainly touched on many of the songs that now define their place in music history, including such hits as “Beginnings,” “Make Me Smile,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? ,” “Free,” “Saturday in the Park” and “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day.”
If you own “Chicago IX: Chicago’s Greatest Hits,” you went in really well prepared, because they played the whole thing in addition to such later hits as “If You Leave Me Now,” “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” and “You’re the inspiration.”
Neil Donell’s vocals on those later hits were often awe-inspiring, especially that high note that refused to end on “You’re the Inspiration.” “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” was another show of force for Donell’s vocals.
Chicago’s set clearly put more of a premium on showing off musical chops than Wilson’s set, at times venturing into progressive-rock terrain.
During their cover of the Spencer Davis Group hit “I’m a Man” (as featured on 1969’s “The Chicago Transit Authority”), they relinquished the stage to drummer Wally Reyes, Jr. and percussionist Ramon “Ray” Yslas, who earned a spontaneous standing ovation for an extended solo that offset dazzling displays of proficiency with personality.
Ray Herrmann also had plenty of opportunities to show what he can do on sax. And guitarist Tony Obrohta turned in a number of impressive solos, from “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long” to “You’re the Inspiration.”
After bringing their set to a powerful conclusion with “Saturday in the Park” and “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” Chicago returned for an encore that opened with “Free” before Obrohta cranked out the opening riff of the song you knew they couldn’ t leave without playing: “25 or 6 to 4,” which also featured a great vocal from Donell.
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Brian Wilson setlist
Do It Again
I Get Around
Little Deuce Coupe
Salt Lake City
Don’t Worry Baby
Sloop John B
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
God Only Knows
Add Some Music to Your Day
I Can Hear Music
Long Promised Road
Sail On, Sailor
Help Me, Rhonda
Love and Mercy
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