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Brian Wilson trusts a Chicagoan to shape his songs

Paul VMertens Brian Wilson.

Paul Von Mertens and Brian Wilson.

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With Al Jardine and
David Marks

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Ravinia Festival, Highland Park

Tickets: $27-$65

Info: (847) 266-5100;

We're "heart and soul of the Beach Boys," says Al Jardine
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Updated: August 24, 2013 6:06AM

Brian Wilson is the most enigmatic figure in American rock ’n’ roll.

He has heard the most beautiful sounds in the darkest of forests.

Chicagoan Paul Von Mertens has the task of getting inside Wilson’s head. The Poi Dog Pondering sax-clarinet player transcribed and wrote arrangements for Wilson’s tour and Grammy-winning recording of “Smile,” and the acclaimed “Pet Sounds” tour. He will be musical director when Wilson appears Friday at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park.

Wilson makes his Ravinia debut with fellow Beach Boys Al Jardine and David Marks and a nine-piece band. The Beach Boys never performed at Ravinia.

Expect Beach Boys hits, deep Beach Boys cuts that have not been played live and Wilson solo material. On Aug. 27 yet another Beach Boys box set — the biggest yet — will be released, a six-CD compilation (also available digitally) called “Made in California.” The Ravinia stop is part of a six-stop Wilson tour before a fall tour and an album with fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jeff Beck.

“Jeff is adding a rock ’n’ roll vibe with a stronger guitar sound,” said Jardine, a founding Beach Boys member. “Apparently he is working with Brian on another project to instrumentalize some of his melodies. I’m singing background parts and lending my support. We might do a session in Chicago, actually.”

Beck, the British guitar great who played with the Yardbirds and the Jeff Beck Group, is recording the album in Hollywood with bassist-producer Don Was and drummer Jim Keltner. “Jeff and Brian are two artists who really admire each other,” Von Mertens said last week before tour rehearsals in Atlantic City, N.J.

In 2005 Beck, a fan of mid-’60s hot rod music, covered the Beach Boys hit “Surf’s Up” when Wilson was honored as MusicCares Person of the Year. Wilson was revved up.

In rehearsal, “Jeff was playing from memory,” Von Mertens recalls. “He is a deep fan. Jeff also asked if the band would stand in a circle around him and sing ‘Our Prayer.’ ”

The gospel-tinged, a cappella track appears on the Beach Boys’ 1969 “20/20” album. It was supposed to be the opening track of “Smile,” the album Wilson abandoned in 1967.

Von Mertens said, “We were like, ‘Sure.’ And he stood there like he was getting a sonic bath of epic proportions.”

Von Mertens plays woodwinds, harmonica and sings backing vocals on the road. He also is in charge of orchestration and string arrangements for recording and touring.

Some legacy artists play the hits over and over, and think of tweaks they may want to make in concert. Bob Dylan completely rearranges his songs to maintain an edge and challenge his audience.

But in the case of Wilson (who was unavailable for comment), “almost without exception we play the songs like Brian recorded them,” Von Mertens said. “And if we change something, he notices. We once tried to change the key of a song without telling him. Darian literally struck the first note and Brian said, ‘No, no, key of A.’ He was in G. He has those savant-like moments, where you go, ‘He is a really, really good musician.’ ”

Jardine said, “Paul is our producer. We all have our opinions and ideas and someone has to put it in one coherent direction. That’s what he does. Brian has learned to lean on Paul a lot.”

Chicago rocker Jim Peterik (Ides of March, Survivor) recommended Von Mertens as a session player for Wilson’s 1998 “Imagination” when Wilson lived in west suburban St. Charles. The record featured Wilson co-writes with Peterik and Jimmy Buffett. Von Mertens was then asked to play on some live Wilson dates in the winter of 2000. “The tour was Brian’s first foray to getting back on the road as a solo artist,” he said. “It’s just been going ever since.”

Von Mertens, 52, grew up in Oak Park. His father owned the Wonder Inn tavern in Franklin Park. His mother was a librarian.

Von Mertens learned about the depth of the music when he started working with Wilson.

“Brian leaves it to me so he doesn’t have to bother writing charts,” he said. “Basically I interpret his ideas based on his directions. The non-musical history of the band was not something I was aware of at all, the gossipy stuff about personal lives. Many of the deep cuts I was hearing for the first time and hearing them as a mature musician. That worked to my advantage. I didn’t have any historical attachment to the music. There are other guys in the band who have that deep history, and they bring something important as well.”

For 2010’s “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin” (Walt Disney Records), Von Mertens listened to nearly 60 Gershwin songs with Wilson, including unpublished material. “We talked about the keys he felt comfortable singing the songs in,” he said. “Which songs he felt really strongly about, how to put them together.” Songs like “I Got Rhythm” were drenched in Beach-Boy-type harmonies, while the record included two unfinished Gershwin sections completed by Wilson and Chicagoan Scott Bennett, formerly of Wilson’s band.

Wilson’s favorite track was “I Loves You, Porgy.”

“I was plunking out the chords on piano in his music room at home,” Von Mertens said. “And he sang it. I got chills. It was so beautiful. I said, ‘Brian, a lot of times you can change the gender of a song. This is from a woman’s point of view. Is there anything you want to do about that? Maybe consider an instrumental?’ I was trying to get ahead of something that might seem a little unusual. He said, ‘No, I’m going to sing the song.’ He does the song in a way that is so committed and so pure to the emotion of the song that [gender] doesn’t matter.

“That’s part of what makes Brian connect to the pure emotion of a song.”

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