Summer SMiLEs With Brian Wilson
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; August 23, 2005
The sounds emanating from the Pabst Theater Wednesday night belied the ornate trappings and sculptures that surrounded them. What we were privy to were some of the great pop classics of the last half of the 20th century, as well as one of its greatest achievements performed in its entirety.
Since the late '90s, Brian Wilson has been slowly recapturing his legacy, performing to audiences for the first time since his days as a Beach Boy. With the help of his backing band (the Wondermints), his attempts have been largely successful. But his greatest triumph has come in the past year, with the release and subsequent touring, of one of the most infamous unreleased albums of all time, SMiLE.
My expectations going into the show had been tempered by what I've seen of Brian Wilson elsewhere. His voice has been noticeably weakened by years of drug abuse, and his stage presence is often likened to being "robotic." These were my worries going in, but after the first few numbers my fears for the most had vanished. Wilson's voice was in strong form; he blew away me away on "Breakaway," and "Help Me Rhonda." Wilson was actually able to hit the higher notes those songs require, thus keeping the focus on the music and not himself.
Before we got to SMiLE, Wilson treated the audience to a virtual run through of The Beach Boys' greatest hits. From the first note of "Do It Again," the audience was completely in Wilson's hands. Most of the crowd participated in sing-a-longs of every tune, and from where we were sitting in the balcony, we could see the lower levels of people standing and dancing. Some concerts I have been to featured a hell of a lot of small talk between numbers; this time that was certainly not the case. Wilson knew what the people wanted to hear, and just delivered hit after hit with maybe a 10-second delay at most between numbers. A few rarer hits were also thrown in as well; "Sail On Sailor" and "Marcella," off the Holland album made some welcome variety, and showed that even in the '70s Wilson had not lost his touch for melody.
After the hour-long first set, the band took a thirty minute intermission to prepare for the performance of SMiLE. If this was any other performer I probably would have complained, but Wilson is still in a very fragile state, and I think everyone understood that he just cannot perform the way, say, the Stones do. I took this time to reflect on the first act, and there is really nothing negative I can say. The band did an excellent job of recreating these classic Beach Boys hits, there was no unwelcome adlibbing and the group vocals were just stunning. I would go so far to say that some of the performances sounded better than the original songs themselves. When the 30 minutes were up, Wilson and his band trotted back onstage and began to perform one of the greatest albums of all time.
I've already discussed what I think of SMiLE in my review of it last year, but in order to enjoy this part of the concert, you need an appreciation of complex, avant-garde music. This isn't "Fun Fun Fun." It was apparent that the crowd did appreciate what was going on, as there were multiple outbreaks of applause at various points. Now, SMiLE was performed perfectly, the acoustics which had been shady at certain point in the first set did not factor in, and everything down to the sound effects off the album were recreated without a hitch. Yet, I found myself enjoying the other parts of the concert more. Unfortunately, having heard SMiLE so many times by now, I think that some of the magic was gone. It was fascinating to watch how the band pulled off this incredibly complex piece of music (God I would hate to be a roadie for this tour), but the emotional impact just didn't happen with me. To say that wasn't a disappointment would be a lie.
While for many SMiLE would have been the perfect capper for the evening, it was not to be. Following the obligatory band introduction piece, Wilson and the band picked right up where they left off in the first set. The band just kicked the crap out of a cover of "Johnny B. Goode," and followed up with a gorgeous rendition of "I Get Around." The performance of the last three songs of the first encore, "Barbara Ann," "Surfin USA," and "Fun Fun Fun," ranks up there with my all-time greatest concert moments. It was just so much fun, to be sitting there with so many other people singing as loud as they could, dancing, and just enjoying the moment.
After exiting offstage again, Wilson and the band came back for a second encore, and proceeded to demonstrate what his approach to music has been all these years; love and spirituality. "Love And Mercy," the very last song of the evening, just summed up the feelings of the audience; after hearing this music for two and a half hours there was nothing else we were feeling.