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Brian Wilson - SMiLE - Oct. 2, 2004

Brian Wilson
October 2, 2004
Auditorium Theatre

Much has been written about SMiLE, the Beach Boys album lost to Brian Wilson's second breakdown. So much, in fact, that you can read the SMiLE FAQ, rather than have me rehash it here (except to note that the FAQ fails to mention the effect of contract disputes with Capitol Records as a factor in Brian's breakdown and the end of the album). However, having been named by some as the "best lost album of all time," Brian's re-recording of SMiLE, and a supporting tour, demanded a look and listen.

The ambition and sophistication of SMiLE is such that the Auditorium Theatre was an apt venue for the show. The Auditorium Theatre is a grand palace with a distinguished history dating to the 1880s. Brian called it the most beautiful place the band has played; he was probably not exaggerating.

Brian's show, however, opened on a far less grandiose note. Brian sat on a stool, with his ten piece ensemble gathered around him in a close semi-circle to perform a number of older Beach Boys songs "unplugged," though the informal mood also recalled Brian's concept for the Beach Boys Party album. It's speculation on my part, but this format may have been chosen to allow Brian to ease into the concert, as he clearly became more comfortable onstage as the concert progressed. This section of the show included "Surfer Girl," but largely mined lesser known gems from Brian's catalog, beginning with "And Your Dreams Come True," and including "Wendy" (dedicated to his daughter, who just gave birth), "Hawaii," "At the Drive-In," and "Please Let Me Wonder." Then, as a SMiLE fragment called "Welcome" played, Brian and the band took their regular places on stage for electric versions of "Dance, Dance, Dance," Pet Sounds highlights including "Sloop John B," "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "God Only Knows," the rarely performed "Marcella," and "Sail On Sailor" (which, like SMiLE, was written by Brian and lyricist Van Dyke Parks). For the latter numbers, members of the Stckholm Strings and Horns moved on and off stage, as the arrangement warranted.

Following a 20 minute intermission, the band (again augmented by the Stockholm Strings and Horns) returned to perform SMiLE in its entirety, which is no mean feat. SMiLE is audacious and (for popular music) complex, demanding the attention of the musicians to a degree more often found with a classical performance. It's impossible to say whether the 2004 version of SMiLE is what Brian would have produced had he finished it for its original release date of January 1967. For example, SMiLE opens with "Our Prayer," an a cappella number that was recorded during the SMiLE sessions, but not included on the track listing Brian supplied to Capitol Records (though that is hardly dispositive, given Brian's methodology at the time). Some lyrical fragments, like "Barnyard," seem to have new music; some musical Fragments, like "Holiday" appear to have new lyrics (completed with help from Van Dyke Parks).

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that SMiLE, both on CD and live, are true to Brain's original vision, which mixes Americana, chamber pop, spirituality, psychedelia, sophisitcation and playfulness in a way that remains unique, even 37 years after it was originally conceived. If Pet Sounds was a portrait, SMiLE would be a landscape, stretching from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii, encompassing barnyards, cabins, Chicago, the transcontinental railroad and (of course) the ocean, populated with cowboys, indians, pirates and God. Finally assembling these pieces into a coherent whole makes for a powerful listening experience, as musical and lyrical themes introduced in the earlier songs reappear in altered forms in the later songs. For example, a music-box, "March of the Wooden Soldiers" sort of riff, when repeated, is revealed to be a close relative of the a cappella lines in "Good Vibrations," an extended version of which forms the album's climax (with the original lyrics supplied by Pet Sounds lyricist Tony Asher).

In re-recording SMiLE, Brian employed one of the studios he originally used (Capitol's Studio One) and some of the same tube-based equipment he used to record Beach Boys vocal tracks, lending the album a vintage 1966 sound, with just enough digital tech to avoid tape hiss.

In concert, SMiLE sounded more modern and visceral. It was also well-staged; Brian was clearly re-investing some of the steep ticket price into production value. Rear projections on the psyche would produce twirling abstract psychedelic flowers, a cloudy sky placing Brian's face on the sun, vintage engravings of locomotives and more. During "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," the Stockholm Strings and Horns donned toy firefighter helmets, echoing the original recording Sessions where Brian provided such helmets to the session musicians (Brian originally abandoned the song after the building across the street from the studio burned to the ground during a recording session). In addition, special theatrical gadgets simulated fires onstage. A charging version of "Good Vibrations" brought the crowd to its feet, where it remained to give Brian a standing ovation as he left the stage.

The full band returned for a medium-length encore of Beach Boy hits, including "Help Me Rhonda," "I Get Around" and "Fun, Fun, Fun." The encore was fairly raucous, reflecting not only the nature of those songs, but also a sense of relief that SMiLE was completed without serious errors. Brian even stepped away from the piano he rarely played to strap on a Fender bass for "Barbara Ann" (which technically is a cover) and "Surfin' U.S.A." (which ultimately required a songwriting credit for Chuck Berry). It was fairly clear from the show that Brian is not completely "normal," asking the crowd (not once but twice) to join in singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," mixing up stage announcements and such. And he is still very much the old school rocker, mentioning that he was glad to be in Chicago several times. However, given Brian's condition, it seemed reassuring, rather than a cliche. It seems ironic that the things that contributed to his breakdowns in his youth -- touring and trying to create SMiLE -- seem to be his best therapy as he approches senior status. But the story of Brian Wilson is that truth is often stranger than fiction. The closing of the chapter called SMiLE may be one of the most satisfying to Brian... and the listener.

Added:  Monday, October 04, 2004
Reviewer:  Karl
hits: 7034
Language: eng


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