37 years after its inception, Brian Wilson performs his “teenage symphony to God”
The casual pop/rock listener’s familiarity with the Beach Boy classics, and their association with an era and youth culture of early sixties innocence, can overshadow the full appreciation and experience of their songs – at Brian Wilson’s concert this past week at Davies Hall in San Francisco, one fan wore a shirt insisting “it’s not about surfing!”
But when one ponders the grand, chugging intro to “California Girls,” the soaring harmonies of “I Get Around,” or the orchestral arrangements of “God Only Knows,” the question of “from whence did this aural splendor come from?” becomes inevitable.
And when the creator, writer, producer, and arranger of these gems emerges for a new and rare concert tour for the performance of his unfinished, epic master-work, those that include pop music as part of their lives need to take notice.
Wilson took the flat cave paintings of sixties pop/rock and exploded them into a three dimensional color wheel of melody, harmony, and sonic depth.
His innovations in modular recording techniques, layered harmonies, unconventional song structures, and orchestrated arrangements, solidified his reputation as a creative genius and rock Gershwin. The well-known storyline of his emotional breakdown, drug abuse, his man-child eccentricities, and decades of seclusion added fuel to the mad-genius mystique.
But what can we make of his newly finished work, key elements of which have been released as individual songs over the years but not as part of his full vision?
Smile is a three-movement pop/avant-guard score that evokes the sweep of Americana, childhood and the father/son relationship, and ruminations on youth. It is a musical theme park that pushes the artistic boundaries today, just as it would have shattered them in the sixties.
With lyrics provided by Van Dyke Parks, a fellow wunderkind composer and arranger on his own, these two twenty-something kids initially collaborated on an ambitious project that was to take the accomplishments of Pet Sounds, and popular music in the late sixties as a whole, into uncharted depths.
Thirty seven years after the process fell apart, both artists re-united to complete the project and allow Brian to take it on the road. On Thursday night, we heard it performed live in all of its glory, filled with whimsy, humor, and emotion.
The overall impression after the performance is one of creative freshness and a musical work that shares the timeless qualities of his classics. It belongs in your collection.
The first suite begins with the hymn “Our Prayer,” is anchored by the rollicking “Heroes and Villains,” and ends with “Cabin Essence,” a song that conjures up the vast plains and wilderness of the American West. This section is a romp, similar to a three-penny opera score, that is accompanied by an abstract storyline of Westward expansion across the American continent.
The second movement is the most cohesive of the three, beginning with the French-horn spiced “Wonderful” and flowing through to the grand “Surf’s Up” where Wilson’s falsetto rejoices “I heard the word, wonderful thing, a children’s song!”
The third section alternates between humor (“I Wanna Be Around/Workshop”), whimsy (“Vega-Tables”), contemplation (“Wind Chimes”), and ultimately the payoff of “Good Vibrations,” placed in its originally-intended position as a finale to the whole work.
The Smile performance began the second set of the San Francisco show. In the first set, Brian took the stage surrounded by his incredibly versatile and youthfully exuberant band, the Wondermints. Beginning with a set of acoustic and a cappella arrangements, Brian was protectively surrounded by the band as they charmingly reproduced some of Wilson’s finest: “Surfer Girl,” “Wendy,” “Add Some Music to your Day,” “Good to my Baby,” “Let me Wonder,” “Drive-in,” “Good Timing,” and “Dreams Come True.”
After moving to his keyboard console positioned squarely at the front of the stage, the band kicked into an electrified “Sloop John B,” and the house tingled with the excitement of the full band treatment of the Beach Boys classics. “California Girls,” “God Only Knows,” “Sail on Sailor,” and “I Get Around” were rousingly performed by this ensemble who obviously adores Brian and work.
Sitting two seats to our left, I watched as the curmudgeonly Neil Young joined the crowd in several standing ovations and sing alongs. One gets the feeling that there are few shows that Young would be caught swaying to the music.
For encores, the crowd was in full sing along mode to “Barbara Ann,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Surfin USA,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” The 63-year old Wilson re-took the stage for a final number, explained to the audience “sorry, no more rock and roll tonight”, and finished up solo with a touching “Love and Mercy.” Seeing Wilson sing strongly through a full set of his music is an uplifting experience given the personal demons that he has had to overcome.
Smile is Wilson’s Fantasia, a collection of timeless scenes and stories, colored brightly with themes that are independent of musical era or genre. It delights the senses. Judging from the applause of the San Francisco crowd, and this reviewers’ own reaction, Smile will leave you grinning from ear to ear.