In the 22 years since the release of Wilson Phillips’ debut single, the still inescapable “Hold On,” the group has never toured. There was never really a reason to- during the height of their popularity, artists made their money from record sales, and they promoted their releases using radio and television. There was never a real need for them to hit the road. It came as a pretty major surprise to see that they actually decided to start touring so many years later. I hadn’t listened to them much since my middle school days, but the whole idea of seeing Wilson Phillips live piqued my curiosity. Would the show be an utter travesty? Can they still sing? Will I be bored listening to a bunch of songs I loved when I was 12? Will my mind be blown? This could have been in many different ways…
Davies Symphony Hall is the premier venue in San Francisco for classical music. It’s acoustics are perfectly designed for large acoustic ensembles. Tonight’s show, however, was not this type of set up. Wilson Phillips were backed by a full electric rock band: two electric guitars, electric organ w/ a Leslie speaker, a full drum kit and electric bass. This proved to be a big challenge for the sound person during the opening number, Shadows & Light‘s rocker “It’s Only Life.” Vocals were buried in the depths of the mix, and the room was dominated by drums and bass. I couldn’t tell if this move was on purpose, and time hasn’t been kind on the groups harmonies, or if this was a simple mistake of the sound person. Happily, as soon as the song was over, after a brief enthusiastic hello from Chynna, Carnie took matters into her own hands. She asked the audience of the sound was as bad in her monitors as it was in the audience, and the audience responded accordingly. She snuck off stage, talked to somebody, and came back to perform a pitch perfect rendition of the first song they wrote as a group, “Release Me.”
Once the sound settled, that’s when things started getting good. These ladies still sound pitch perfect. Their harmonies are as sugary sweet as ever, and don’t let the overly airbrushed promo pic used as a header fool you: they look great! Chynna hardly looks like a mother of 3 in her 40’s: she’s very trim and full of energy. She never stood still, the entire set running around the entire stage, including several leaps from the drum riser. Carnie is the comic relief- telling humorous anecdotes about Spanx, and taking any moment should could to tell a joke or impersonate another singer. (She does a killer Cher!) Wendy, the youngest of the group, is also the “shy” one. Chynna and Carnie both would pick on her like they would a little sister. However, her voice is the most impressive of the bunch. Despite Chynna being the frontwoman, taking point on the banter and being, in general, the focus of the stage show, Wendy is definitely the lead singer.
Since the only releases from Wilson Phillips in the last decade have been covers records, a the bulk of the set was devoted to songs made famous by other writers. They did a haunting version of Elton John’s “Daniel,” a track that was previously available as the b-side to the cassette single of “Give It Up.” (Note: I own this cassette single) They covered did faithful versions of The Eagles’ “Already Gone” and ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” that managed to get the typically subdued Davies’ crowd up and dancing. In a move that could only happen in San Francisco, the ladies’ ceded lead vocals on another ABBA tune to Carnie Wilson’s husband (and guitar player for the band) Rob Bonfiglio. The song? “Does Your Mother Know.”
The best covers, of course, were songs written by the famous fathers of the group: Brian Wilson and John Phillips. They did a version of “Dedicated To The One I Love” that was closer to The Shirelles version than The Mama’s and The Papa’s. More interesting was the version of “California Dreamin'” that managed to be more haunting than the original. They preceded this track with delightful story about John Phillips waking his wife Michelle up in the middle of the night with the deep need to play the song he wrote to her. He gave her 50% royalties on the song just in order to get her critique of it at that hour. To be fair, she also wrote one of the verses.
The Beach Boys covers were the most impressive. Instead of playing it safe and doing a bunch of early bubblegum singles, they pulled their song choices almost entirely off Pet Sounds. The band held it down nicely, playing these lush, complex songs as a 5 piece band, and retaining all the beauty, whimsy, and general weirdness of the original compositions. The three women of Wilson Phillips owned the difficult harmonies. During “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” it was the only moment where Chynna moved to the background of the stage, concentrating solely on doing what seemed to be two different vocal harmonies at once.
The only mis-step in what was a nearly perfect performance was “Kokomo.” It is the only song that John Phillips ever wrote with a Beach Boy. That Beach Boy was Mike Love, not Brian Wilson. It seemed that it was shoehorned into the set because it’s significance to the project, not out of an affection towards the song. The performance came off forced and a bit wooden. I don’t think anybody on stage actually liked the song. They saved themselves right afterwards, at least in my eyes, by doing “Impulsive.” This was one of my favorite songs when I was 10, and I was as giddy as a 10 year old that they played it.
The encore was beautiful: They performed a rendition of The Beach Boys’ “In My Room” accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar. Then, after about 2 minutes on how amazing Bridesmaids was, they, of course, closed with “Hold On.” They quickly walked off stage, informing the crowd that they intend on returning next year. And I will probably be back for that.
It’s Only Life
Don’t Take Me Down
Daniel (Elton John)
Dedicated To The One I Love (The Mamas and The Papas)
Already Gone (Eagles)
You’re In Love
California Dreamin’ (The Mamas and The Papas)
God Only Knows (The Beach Boys)
Wouldn’t It Be Nice (The Beach Boys)
Dancing Queen (Abba)
Does Your Mother Know (Abba)
Kokomo (The Beach Boys)
Eyes Like Twins
In My Room (The Beach Boys)