A decade ago, Princeton economics professor — and future Nobel laureate in economics — Daniel Kahneman co-authored a Psychological Science article called “Does Living in California Make People Happy?” This study showed that people living in Southern California and the Midwest actually have similar levels of satisfaction with their lives, but both groups felt that “someone like them” would be happier living in California.

Although it isn’t mentioned in this study, I would argue that a large part of this perception is due to the music of Brian Wilson, in particular his early songs with The Beach Boys. Wilson wrote songs that painted California as a sunny paradise of surf, hot rods, beautiful women, and fun. 

But the first set of Wilson’s triumphant show at the Lobero Theatre on Wednesday night also reminded us that there was more to The Beach Boys than sun and fun. This included the Pet Sounds classics “In My Room,” which Wilson undersold as “another ballad;” “God Only Knows,” which he reported is his friend Paul McCartney‘s favorite song; and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”  The set closed with one of pop music’s all-time greatest songs, the theremin-driven “Good Vibrations.”

The second set was a complete performance of the Brian Wilson solo album That Lucky Old Sun, released this month. This is an ode to Southern California in the 1950s and ‘60s, and included taped narratives from the album with vintage footage projected on a screen above the band. Most moving was the sequence starting with a montage of pictures of Brian with brothers Dennis and Carl Wilson, who drowned in 1983 and died of cancer in 1998, respectively. This was followed by the poignant “Midnight’s Another Day,” in which Brian addresses the mental illness that incapacitated him for years with lyrics like “Lost my way/ The sun grew dim” and “Swept away in a brainstorm/ Chapters missing, pages torn.” His recovery was then celebrated in the next song, “Going Home,” in which he sings that he “Found peace of mind, yeah one piece at a time.” The crowd enthusiastically rose to its feet at the end of this song, applauding both the stellar performance and Wilson’s return from the brink.

The rollicking first encore kicked off with a lively cover of “Johnny B. Goode” and never slowed down. Wilson even got up from behind his keyboard and played bass, starting with “Barbara Ann.” The concert closed with a second encore in which the band played “Love and Mercy” from Brian’s 1988 solo debut.

The 10-member band, supplemented in the second set by strings, was truly remarkable throughout, with spot-on harmonizing and playing. I counted up to eight of the band members singing background vocals at the same time, giving the angelic blend that is so much associated with The Beach Boys. They were clearly having a good time, as was the audience.

Does living in California make people happy? Maybe not. But listening to Brian Wilson’s music certainly can.

1. Little Girl I Once Knew
2. Dance, Dance, Dance
3. Catch A Wave
4. Then I Kissed Her
5. Surfer Girl
6. In My Room
7. All Summer Long
8. Do You Wanna Dance?
9. Row, Row, Row Your Boat
10. Add Some Music to Your Day
11. Please Let Me Wonder
12. Wouldn’t It Be Nice
13. God Only Knows
14. Sail On, Sailor
15. California Girls
16. Do It Again
17. I Get Around
18. Good Vibrations


19. That Lucky Old Sun
20. Morning Beat
21. Room With A View (Narrative)
22. Good Kind of Love
23. Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl
24. Venice Beach (Narrative)
25. Live Let Live/That Lucky Old Sun (reprise)
26. Mexican Girl
27. Cinco de Mayo (Narrative)
28. California Role/That Lucky Old Sun (reprise)
29. Between Pictures (Narrative)
30. Oxygen to the Brain
31. Can’t Wait Too Long
32. Midnight’s Another Day
33. That Lucky Old Sun (reprise)
34. Going Home
35. Southern California

Encore 1
36. Johnny B. Goode
37. Help Me Rhonda
38. Barbara Ann
39. Surfin’ USA
40. Fun, Fun, Fun

Encore 2
41. Love and Mercy

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.