Beach Boys classics and a full rendition of “Smile”
Brian Wilson (vocals/keyboards/bass)
Band including Jeffrey Foskett, Darian Sahanaja, Probyn Gregory, Nick Walusko, Nelson Bragg, Jim Hines, Bob Lizik, Paul Mertens, Scott Bennett and Taylor Mills
Stockholm Strings ‘n’ Brass
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 25 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Although it was some 28 years ago that the phrase ‘Brian’s Back’ was first uttered, only in the last five years has Brian Wilson – main songwriter, arranger and creative focal-point of “The Beach Boys” – taken on a visibility commensurate with an artist of his standing. Beginning with low-key gigs around the US in 1999, his commitments reached an initial peak with the “Pet Sounds Tour” during 2001/2.
Unlike almost all comeback tours, this was not a case of over-familiar music indifferently performed: in particular, the musicians assembled as a touring group were as proficient an outfit as is likely to be encountered – delighting listeners with the freshness of, and fidelity to the song arrangements as much as they were intent on providing Wilson with the all-round support he needs to give of himself in a live context. The principal outcome was a live recording of the classic 1966 album “Pet Sounds” that breathed new life into the still-remarkable instrumentation of the original, cementing its status as one of the handful of musical works by which the mid-twentieth century is likely to be judged.
Two years on, and Wilson returns with a similarly-constituted crew for the “Smile Tour”. The opening 20 minutes was deliberately low-key: Wilson and a group of musicians gathered in a semi-circle at stage-right for an acoustic run-through of half-a-dozen ‘favourites’: the informality recalling that of The Beach Boys’ pioneering (albeit in spite of itself!) “Party!” album of 1965. Mainly early rock-and-roll numbers were the order of the day – “Hawaii” easing into “Surfer Girl” (the teenage Wilson’s first original opus), to be followed by lively renditions of “Wendy” and “Good To My Baby”. The gorgeously soporific “Add Some Music” (from 1970’s still-underrated “Sunflower” album) was a surprising inclusion, lovingly rendered – then an a cappella “You’re Welcome” saw the band make a transition to the full-stage act that proceeded to throw off a dozen and more Wilson classics with a familiarity born of conviction.
In what was ostensibly the ‘Best Of’ portion of the evening, it was impossible to cover all aspects of Wilson’s song-writing prowess. The selection on offer this evening offered a good balance of old and new: at the outset – neatly following the perennial “Dance Dance Dance” with “How Could We Still Be Dancin’”, the opening track from Wilson’s latest studio album “Gettin’ In Over My Head”. Much has been written and implied about this new solo effort: suffice here to say that its 50 minutes of pristine AOR are rarely less than enjoyable – and live, Wilson’s lead vocal gives the present number more character than Elton John’s professionalism on the disc itself. It was similar gain in renditions of the title number and “Searchin’” – given as a tribute to the late Carl Wilson, where the lifting (from a demo track) of the latter’s vocal gives the album version a touching retrospection that Wilson’s live vocal proved more than capable of bringing off. A relaxed account of the deceptively lightweight “Friends” opened up its harmonic and textural adventurousness, and the charged-up audience couldn’t but ‘hit the groove’ in the brashness of “Darlin’” – apparently a live favourite of The Partridge Family!
Introduced as Paul McCartney’s preferred Beach Boys number, “God Only Knows” brought out the fallibility of Wilson’s upper register in his seventh decade, though a near-perfect recreation of the instrumental backing was more than recompense. Having paid tribute to Carl, Brian made similar obeisance to brother Dennis with the latter’s soulful “Forever”, then upped the tempo once more with a cracking account of “California Girls” – his favourite among all his songs. A slightly ragged “Sloop John B” preceded three tracks from later Beach Boys albums: the catchy “Good Timin’” is a highlight from the band’s generally indifferent later 1970s, while “Marcella” is a potent reminder that they could rock with the best of their contemporaries, and its shifting vocal textures can never have been so well realised. Even better was “Sail On Sailor”: one of their finest offerings from a praiseworthy crop of early ’70s albums, and given here with a clarity that enabled Wilson’s still-resonant lower register to come through to potent effect – ending the first half of the evening on an undoubted high.
The second half commenced with a complete rendition of “Smile”. Volumes have been written about this legendary album – which Wilson worked on intensively from the autumn of 1966 to the spring of ’67, then abandoned owing to circumstances whose precise facts, while easy to deduce, have never coherently been explained. Yet the emergence of numerous of its projected tracks on subsequent albums and the substantial cache of unreleased material – not to mention frequent bootlegs – long ago established that, whatever “Smile” was meant to be 37 years ago, its sheer creative originality and intricacy of construction were far in advance of anything then recognised as ‘popular’ music, and that its release then would have further consolidated Wilson’s standing as a composer to reckon with.
When the project collapsed, the “Smiley Smile” album that emerged in summer 1967 was acknowledged even then as a travesty of what might have been. Since his return to musical active service in the late ’80s, Wilson has spoken about the project in terms more guarded than affectionate. Hearing the band “The Wondermints” back in the mid-’90s seems to have convinced him that the live performance of “Smile” was at least a possibility – a conviction that snowballed to the point when, following the end of the “Pet Sounds” tour in 2002, a tour based around what had been intended as its follow-up album seemed the only way forward. The process whereby “Smile” was put into shape is a complex one: the tour’s souvenir programme (a lavish affair for once worth every penny) goes into considerable detail on how this came about. Essentially, it involved a collaboration between Wilson, original lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wondermints co-founder Darian Sahanaja and arranger Paul Mertens (whose sax playing was a pleasure throughout the evening) – establishing what the “Smile” music consisted of, how it might fit together, then creating a framework to which other musicians could make their contribution.
What resulted, and what has now been heard around the world these past six months, is a 45-minute piece grouping the 17 numbers into three distinct movements. Part One opens with the a cappella fervency of Our Prayer, proceeding to the ambitious “Heroes and Villains” – and how good to hear its numerous disparate parts inter-linked so that their quirky humour is given full rein. Moreover, the minor-harmony colouring of the chorus gives much more a portent of what is to follow than the version released as a single back in 1967. It’s a natural step from here to the whimsy of “Barnyard” and the speculative tone of “Do You Like Worms?” – now given additional vocals and with the poignant “Bicycle Rider” motif derived from “Heroes” … integrated into its course so that continuity is maintained.
There’s an affectionate touch of nostalgia in the brief “The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine” medley, before the surreal instrumentation and airborne vocals of “Cabin Essence” effect closure.
Part Two begins with the lullaby-like strain of “Wonderful, its underlying keyboard motion segueing into the carefree ambience of “Look”, and continuing through the dense vocal overlapping of “Child Is Father To The Man”, before culminating in perhaps the most profound song Wilson has ever penned – “Surf’s Up”. Not that this contemplative number has much overtly to do with surf culture: Parks’s lyrics (as they so often do) intrigue more than they explain, but his sense of alliterative elegance is unerring, and Wilson’s music conveys an all-enveloping calm of heart-rending pathos. Not that he could now hope to equal the soaring eloquence of the piano-only version recorded for US television in early 1967, but his demonstrable involvement with the song and care in projecting the vocal line is proof that the song has lost none of its resonance for him, and inspires a frisson of intensity from the musicians.
Part Three begins with the deadpan humour of “I’m In Great Shape” – cue a plethora of sawing and drilling – before the knockabout hilarity of “Vega-Tables” and its paean to DIY healthcare. The good-natured vibe of “Holidays” features a postlude for mallet instruments that leads perfectly into the smooth contours of “Wind Chimes”, its undulating dynamics rudely interrupted by the barrage of sirens that is the “Fire Intro’”. A climactic pause launches “Mrs O’Leary’s Cow” (aka “Fire”) – the most rebarbative number of the whole piece, whose vocal chant lends the manic rhythmic repetition and percussive onslaught an elemental sense of foreboding. Much-needed contrast comes with the cool textures of “Love To Say Dada”, its rippling calm providing breathing space before “Good Vibrations” arrives as the grand finale. Interestingly, Wilson has gone back to the original lyrics penned by Tony Asher in the wake of “Pet Sounds”, and interpolated elements omitted from the famous single release – thus ensuring that the varied emotional odyssey undertaken by “Smile” is capped with a real sense of life-affirming vitality.
Make no mistake, this is a lengthy and often complex listening experience – far removed from the feel-good ditties with which Wilson had cut his musical teeth barely six years before. And yet the scale of the enterprise (if not always its musical and expressive logic) communicated readily to the audience, whose response was unequivocally positive. What, one wonders, might “Smile” have done for musical culture 37 years ago? What possible effect might its appearance now have?
Little time to ponder, however, as master of ceremonies Jeffrey Foskett introduced the band in turn – the whole team reassembling for the customary rock-and-roll sequence. Opening with the proverbial retro rocker “Do It Again”, this took in such evergreens as “Surfin’ USA” and “I Get Around”, a breathless rendition of “Help Me Ronda”, “Barbara Ann” and the obligatory “Fun Fun Fun” – Wilson taking up the bass guitar that was his regular instrument in those heady early years and leading from the front with obvious relish. Which left time for the now-essential encore of “Love and Mercy” – introduced on his eponymous solo album from 1988 and a number which encapsulates the direct sincerity of his finest ballads. A little rushed tonight, maybe, as there was a post-concert signing still to be attended to.
The commercial and, let’s not forget, artistic success of this tour has no doubt left many wondering how Brian Wilson can hope to equal such an achievement in future. Given his enduring association with the mercurial talent of Parks, the musical accomplishment of Sahanaja, and the combined expertise and goodwill of those in the touring band, collaborative options are as numerous as they are enticing. But whatever Wilson goes on to achieve, the simple fact is that even a selection of his music can sustain a two-hour show and is an achievement which few of his songwriter contemporaries can emulate. That Brian Wilson is aware of this as never before can only be a source of great and lasting satisfaction.