When Brian Wilson's musical director Paul Mertens calls, it is the week after a show in Ra'anana, Israel. As the band was onstage performing Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys' epochal 1966 album, two terrorists attacked a cafe in downtown Tel Aviv, killing four and injuring five. Good vibrations were rarely so needed or welcomed.
"We were 40 miles away from downtown Tel Aviv, so we were never in any danger," Mertens recalls. "When we arrived [in Israel], we were warmly welcomed by everyone we met. Brian was given a key to the city by the mayor. That tragedy was a shadow over the whole experience. But I think we were also happy that at least we were there to play music, make people happy, and do some good."
The Ra'anana show was part of the Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour, which comes to the Fox Theatre on Friday, Sept. 30. Brian Wilson was, of course, the Beach Boys' primary songwriter and arranger.
Working closely with lyricist Tony Asher and backed by the legendary Wrecking Crew, Wilson created most of Pet Sounds while the rest of the band was on tour. A song suite encompassing themes of melancholy, uncertainty and grown-up love, the album is one of the few rock releases for which the word "masterpiece" actually applies.
Pet Sounds was a critical smash — Paul McCartney famously declared "God Only Knows" to be the best song ever written — but it barely cracked the American top 10. The other Beach Boys were said to have been resentful of Wilson's abandonment of a proven formula.
But was it really so removed from their earlier work? As early as 1963, Wilson was writing introspective songs like "In My Room," which hinted at the fear and melancholy beneath the public image of surfboards, hot rods, and bikini-clad California girls. What Pet Sounds really did was strip away the artifice of sea, surf, and carefree teenage kicks. Even "Sloop John B," the album's lone seafaring song, was one long plea to go home. It's easier now to hear Pet Sounds as part of a continuum.
This tour comes at a fruitful period in Wilson's creative life, one in which he's resolved old issues while looking ahead to new projects. In 2011, he completed the long-abandoned Smile album using the original recordings. In 2012, he briefly reunited with the surviving Beach Boys for the critically acclaimed That's Why God Made the Radio album and a tour. He has remained busy in the studio, most recently releasing No Pier Pressure. In 2014, the biopic Love and Mercy painstakingly recreated some of the Pet Sounds and Smile recording sessions, capturing both moments of levity and private anguish. Wilson performed the title track over the closing credits.
"We've all known Brian Wilson for at least 10 years, and most of us have been around since his first solo dates in 1999," Mertens says. "[Former Beach Boys] Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin are coming with us too, and I know Brian enjoys what they bring to the show. And Al's son Matt has been singing with the band for a year or more, so he's part of the family. We all feel that what we're doing is a continuation of the Beach Boys' legacy through family and friends."
The tour is actually Pet Sounds' second live workout. In 2000, Wilson and the band performed the album with local orchestras. Mertens wrote the arrangements, and Van Dyke Parks, Wilson's Smile collaborator, composed a suite that opened most dates. While the tour is not designed for orchestral accompaniment, the Boston Pops did accompany Wilson on two dates last month, using Mertens' original arrangements.
"There are string sections on Pet Sounds," Mertens says. "But to me, what's special about that is not that Brian was trying to introduce classical music into rock 'n' roll. Rather, he was trying to get classical musicians to play like rock musicians. He's using these things to make music in the way that he understood, rather than trying to appropriate the orchestra. Often he'll direct a drummer to play in a very unconventional way, in a way that drummers don't normally play. He'll say, 'No, no, don't play the hi-hat, just go bomp ... ba-domp ... bomp ... ba-domp on the tom and kick drum.' He's feeling a certain thing, but coming at it from a musical idea rather than the conventions of the instrument."
Wilson has directed the touring band in the same intuitive way. "Once he had an idea for an introduction into 'California Girls,'" Mertens recalls. "He had all the parts in his head. He came to sound check and said, 'I want you to play this on bass; you sing this part; here's the guitar part ... ' He dictated everything to us and taught it to us in about five minutes. So we've been adding that to the show."
At times, Wilson has had a reputation as an uncomfortable live performer. This time around, however, he has reportedly been in great spirits.
"In all the time that we've played with him, this is the most comfortable onstage that he's ever been," Mertens says. "Brian is an artist in the studio as a songwriter, composer, arranger, and singer. But he's not a showman. There are times onstage when he may seem a little bit distracted. So it's nice to see his sense of humor, his playfulness, being expressed. People are getting to seeing the real Brian."
Besides playing Pet Sounds in full, Wilson and the band have been exploring some of their deepest cuts, as well as a good selection of the hits. With Chaplin on board, they've been revisiting the albums on which he appeared, including 1972's Carl & the Passions – So Tough and 1973's Holland. "We're doing 'Sail On Sailor,' 'Funky Pretty,' 'Wild Honey,' 'Marcella.' It's cool to be able to explore that part of the Beach Boys' catalog. It hasn't been all that well-represented in terms of live performance," Mertens says.
Ultimately, Mertens suggests, Wilson's songs have endured because they are part of an American folk tradition. "It's music of the people. Brian says it himself: 'We were a garage band.' If that's not folk music, what is? It follows an oral tradition of kids listening to records, learning to play guitar, imitating the things that they hear. It doesn't come from an academy or pedagogy. It's always interesting to talk to people who have analyzed the music, like 'Surf's Up' or 'Heroes and Villains.' It can stand up to a lot of analysis, but really, Brian wasn't thinking about key relationships or thematic elements. It was just the music that he heard."
The tour is billed as the last time Wilson will play Pet Sounds live. At age 74, it's realistic to assume that his touring years may not last much longer. If so, he's going out with a bang.
"It feels pretty epic," Mertens says. "Brian agreed to do the Beach Boys' reunion tour on the condition that he could bring his band, so we all participated in that. This feels like a big deal in terms of Brian's artistry at a deeper level.
"It feels historic, and I feel thrilled to be a part of it."
Brian Wilson presents Pet Sounds at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30 at the Fox Theatre; tickets $29.95-125; call 313-471-6611 or visit olympiaentertainment.com for more information; 211 Woodward Ave. in Detroit.