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Live review: Brian Wilson and company in the 'Sun'

December 7, 2009 |  1:41 pm

Dave Alvin, Harper Simon and the Living Sisters help the Beach Boys legend make Sunday's 'Songs of the Sun' concert a memorable ode to the California experience.

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At the end of Sunday's "Songs of the Sun" concert, part of the L.A. Philharmonic's West Coast, Left Coast festival celebrating regional culture, headliner Brian Wilson invited the rest of the night's performers back to the stage for a multi-generational singalong on a couple of his signature hits, "Surfin' U.S.A." and "Fun, Fun, Fun."

Out trotted singer-songwriter Harper Simon, who had opened the evening, the ad hoc female harmony trio the Living Sisters -- Inara George, the daughter of Little Feat founder Lowell George; jazz-pop singer-songwriter Eleni Mandell; and Lavender Diamond's Becky Stark -- and veteran Southland roots-rock singer, songwriter and guitarist Dave Alvin.

One bit of wishful thinking for aficionados of Southern California pop music went unrealized: that of a more substantive musical meeting between Wilson, the melodic and harmonic genius behind the Beach Boys, and Alvin, the heart and soul of the Blasters, one of the great L.A. bands of the '80s.

Yes, Alvin added his voice (off-mike) and hand claps to the two iconic Beach Boys hits of the '60s, songs born of this region's surf and car cultures. But it could have been an even more symbolically ideal collaboration had he strapped on a Fender electric guitar -- the locally produced embodiment of the sound and spirit not only of the Beach Boys but also of rock 'n' roll itself -- to handle parts originally played by Wilson's late brother Carl.

That nit officially picked, "Songs of the Sun" nevertheless was an illuminating night of appropriately casual and largely acoustic music-making rooted in the exquisite vocal harmonizing that is central to Wilson's music and that of the Andrews Sisters-cum-Roches-inspired Living Sisters. Those harmonies also can be found in the folk-country narrative storytelling tradition that Alvin has embraced over the last 30 years.

Simon started off with four songs delivered much as he would have done them in his appearances at the Silverlake Lounge, which he referenced early on. "Berkeley Girl" most directly connected with the night's geographical focal point, with its nods to those nexuses of indie-rock, Silver Lake and Echo Park.

Alvin came next with a 45-minute set that he opened with a short homage to another under-sung Southland singer-songwriter, John Stewart, whom he saluted with a verse from the title track from Stewart's paean to the Golden State, "California Bloodlines." That segued into Alvin's "California's Burning," a more caustic look at what's happened to the state once regarded by much of the nation as the Promised Land.

His sweet ode to Karen Carpenter, "Downey Girl," was complemented by steel guitar ace Greg Leisz, playing dobro. "Dry River," his unromanticized account of growing up near the concrete banks of the San Gabriel River, led nicely into "King of California."

He topped off his set with "Ashgrove," his celebration of the long-defunct folk-blues club, and a rare latter-day reading of "Fourth of July," which was reconfigured into a slower, more haunting folk-style rendition than the version he recorded after he'd left the Blasters and joined X.

George, Mandell and Stark, dressed in complementary silver, gold and blue lamé mini-dresses, warbled sweetly during their 15 minutes on stage, mostly as an interlude between the centerpiece sets by Alvin and Wilson.

Wilson stuck largely to cornerstone Beach Boys material, but did it in a relatively unfamiliar way. He placed more emphasis than usual on the vocals because of reduced instrumentation, just two acoustic guitars, bass, piano and occasional keyboards, rather than his full-scale 10-piece band.

There was an exquisite a cappella nod to one of his primary influences, the Four Freshmen, and a timely version of "Little Saint Nick." That led to an audience singalong on "Help Me, Rhonda" and "Good Vibrations."

It was the perfect climax to a near-perfect evening.

-Randy Lewis

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Photo: Brian Wilson, third from left, performs with band. Credit: Ann Johansson / For The Times

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