During the early stages of tonight’s epic two-and-a-half hour set, Jonathan Wilson and his superb four-piece band dissolve the robust hard rock groove of Dear Friend into the kind of jazz-hued, loose and rambling virtuoso jam that some might present as exhibit A in the case to examine why punk just had to happen.
As it happens, it’s totally electrifying. It doesn’t take much effort to imagine you’ve been transported to an evening when members of the Grateful Dead gate-crashed a mellow campfire song circle for melancholy Californian singer-songwriters circa 1971, only a lot less blearily self-indulgent than that scenario might suggest.
Which is only appropriate: looking like a cross between mid-70s Neil Young and a resurrected Dennis Wilson, the 43-year-old guitarist, songwriter and producer has styled himself as a reviver of the (Laurel) canyon spirit.
The North Carolina-born LA resident has built a reputation as an uncommonly convincing throwback to a less cynical bygone era when long hair, acoustic guitars, jam sessions, aromatic smoke and songwriterly hearts worn resolutely on the sleeve ruled supreme in California.
It turns out that Wilson has had fill of the retro-minded method acting he’s cultivated since 2011’s debut Gentle Spirit. One of Wilson’s stated intents for excellent new album Rare Birds was to put an end to Crosby, Stills & Nash comparisons (this frequently cited point of reference could hardly have been discouraged by two-thirds of the veteran hippie harmony trio guesting on 2013’s Fanfare). In this, the album (which provides much of tonight’s set) and, by extension, tonight’s show succeed handsomely.
It’s hard to imagine how there could possibly be a huger stylistic wedge between, say, the subtly electronic, synth-saturated pulse of the turbulently gliding Over The Midnight or the gently throbbing kosmische yacht-rock of Loving You and the laidback, Dead-esque fretboard jousting of old favourite Desert Raven without exchanging all of the musicians.
To further separate the old from the new, Wilson’s unquenchable thirst for spontaneous musical muscle-flexing doesn’t extend to the often startlingly beautiful new material. Like a proud, protective parent striving to protect a vulnerable little one from any undue upheavals, Wilson and co. rarely divert from the script provided by the recorded versions tonight when recreating these complex, multi-layered new creations that speak of hundreds of studio hours.
This is a shame. In an exhaustive set that could benefit from a bit of judicious pruning, you end up hoping that the mesmerising heartbreak that fuels melodically rich, heartfelt new songs such as the timelessly swooning Sunset Boulevard could be stretched as far as the extended Crazy Horse crunch of Valley of the Silver Moon.
By the time Wilson returns to the stage to play Gentle Spirit’s gorgeous title track on his own to a rapturous reception from capacity crowd, it’s hard to hang on to such reservations. Rare Birds is a meticulously built, multilayered album and there are points tonight when Wilson doesn’t quite manage to replicate the album’s hypnotic pull. This intimate, stripped down performance proves he doesn’t need added ingredients to impress.