Brian Wilson was the lone musical genius who created the sound and the best songs of the Beach Boys. In mid-60’s singles like “Don’t Worry Baby” and “When I Grow Up” and at greater length on albums like “Summer Days (and Summer Nights)” and “The Beach Boys Today,” Wilson explored the possibilities of group harmony in pop music.
Both albums are full of beautiful, impossibly romantic pop songs. The productions and arrangments are wonderully crafted; you can almost feel the perfectionism that (combined with an abusive father and hallucinogenic drugs) fueled his subsequent nervous breakdown.
Before the breakdown, however, came the full flowering of Wilson’s genius in “Pet Sounds,” the consummate Beach Boys album that powerfully expressed (with help from Tony Asher on the lyrics) Wilson’s deepest yearnings with a moving spiritual twist. Immediately preceding the breakdown was Wilson’s work on the uncompleted album “Smile” and a promised movement even beyond the accomplishment of “Pet Sounds.”
Beach Boys’ albums following “Pet Sounds” included songs from his work on “Smile” — “Heroes and Villains,” “Vegetables,” and “Surf’s Up.” Forty years later, now that Wilson has managed to return to work on the album and complete it with his former collaborator Van Dyke Parks, what has he delivered?
Earlier this year Wilson performed “Smile” in London to a distinguished audience of pop royalty. Last night for the first performance of “Smile” before an American audience — an audience of rabid Minneapolis fans — Wilson turned in a generous, unforgettable performance.
Wilson took the stage shortly after 7:30 p.m. with the 10 members of his touring band huddled around him in a semicircle for a run-through of Beach Boys highlights from ages past. They kicked off with a gorgeous rendition of “And Your Dreams Come True” and continued for an hour revisiting the Brian Wilson/Beach Boys songbook — “Surfer Girl,” “Wendy,” “Please Let Me Wonder” among them.
The musicians took their positions on stage with their instruments to complete the set with “Sloop John B,” “Dance Dance Dance,” “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “California Girls,” “Darlin,'” and “Sail on Sailor.” Wilson’s band and backing vocalists replicated the Beach Boys arrangements and harmonies with a satisfyingly full sound.
After a 20-minute intermission the band retook the stage with a string and horn ensemble for “Smile.” I have not heard the recording released earlier this week, but in concert the set sounded in fact like the movement beyond “Pet Sounds” toward which Wilson was working, for better or for worse, at the time of his breakdown.
The songs were arranged as suites with repeating movements — “Heroes and Villains,” “Vegetables,” and “Surf’s Up” provided three motifs, elaborated beyond previously released versions and fitted into a fuller setting culminating in an awe-inspiring (and lyrically recast) version of “Good Vibrations” that concluded the set on a thrilling note.
Wilson and his ensemble quickly returned for an encore including “Surfin’ USA” (with red, white and blue backing lights turning it into a kind of patriotic anthem), “I Get Around” and glorious versions of “Help Me Rhonda” and “Barbara Ann.” Wilson wound up with a lovely, healing rendition of “Love and Mercy.”
Wilson’s younger brothers and former Beach Boys bandmates Carl Wilson and Dennis Wilson are dead. He paid tribute to them both in performing an old Dennis Wilson song during the first set. Waywardness and mortality necessarily provide the backdrop to Wilson’s recreation of his Beach Boys highlights and his reconstruction of “Smile” nearly forty years after the fact. At the conclusion of this three-hour extravaganza last night, my thought was: Lord, thank you for delivering us to this day. (And thanks to my friend Ron McLean who insisted that this was a concert I couldn’t miss; Ron, you were so right.)
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