It's not every day that you get to see a rock legend play to a crowd of fifty in an art gallery, but that's exactly what happened Saturday night, when we were given access to an exclusive performance by the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson at the San Francisco Art Exchange. Wilson, who made headlines when he finally released his long-buried album SMiLE in 2004, was in town to promote his new record, That Lucky Old Sun. The album was the inspiration for new artwork by the British rock artist Sir Peter Blake, best known for styling the cover of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The San Francisco Art Exchange, which specializes in art by and featuring musicians, offered the show as a thank-you to those who purchased Blake's limited-edition, $1,000 box set of art inspired by That Lucky Old Sun.
As was to be expected from a show by a rock icon with a hefty price tag, Saturday's crowd skewed to baby boomers, many of whom were obviously overjoyed to hear Wilson sing the beloved songs of their youth. The singer, clad in a flannel shirt, cheerfully played through a set of hits, including "California Girls," "God Only Knows," "Surfin' U.S.A.," and "Help Me Rhonda." Perched on a stool, he left the instrumentation to his talented backing band, who contributed the elegant vocal harmonics for which Wilson is known. The crowd was fidgety during a three-song interlude of tracks from That Lucky Old Sun, but we were captivated by the more complex instrumentation and darker lyrics. Once he switched back to "I Get Around" and "Fun, Fun, Fun," however, concertgoers were again dancing and singing along happily.
Wilson has obviously been impacted by his years of struggle with mental illness and drug addiction. He seemed tired during his set, and despite deafening cheers, the band didn't return for an encore. In the midst of a song, though, he could be joyful, often illustrating the lyrics of teenage love and heartbreak with emphatic hand gestures. The years may have been hard on Wilson, but it's clear that underneath his aged facade, the easygoing soul of a So-Cal surfer type still dwells. On the walls around Wilson, this spirit was echoed by Blake's timeless images of sun, sand, and lifeguard stations.