Seeing shows by three ’60s musical legends within four days proved you can’t go home again. No matter how hard Love and the Zombies tried, they couldn’t surpass what they used to be, and even recreating it was bittersweet. At the same time, Brian Wilson, one of the greatest legends of that storied, easily romanticized period, was surprisingly moving. One reason may be that his show was more about closure and creativity than reliving ancient glories.
On Oct. 11, Love opened for the Zombies at Beachland Ballroom, the predominant rock venue in the Cleveland area. The show drew about 350 people to a space that accommodates about 600, and both bands hawked their wares, just like at arena shows. Love offered T shirts, baseball caps and a new Love EP. The Zombies hawked their new album on Rhino, a highly detailed biography, Colin Blunstone solo albums, and the customary T-shirts. There were plenty of takers.
There were plenty of fans, too, even though many left after Love’s opening hour-plus set. Sparked by the energetic Arthur Lee and original Love guitarist John Echols, it was more successful than the Zombies, and not only because the material, both then and now, was more exotic. Lee was in fine voice, and wisely highlighted almost all of “Forever Changes,” the 1967 album that many feel is one of the most expressive and original albums of that decade. The highlights were Bryan Maclean’s “Old Man,” a hard-rocking “Alone Again Or,” a pretty “Orange Skies,” and a very strong, even funky “Everybody’s Gotta Live.” Lee never took his shades off and for the most part, kept a baseball cap atop his bald head. He seemed energetic and feisty and eager to replay the ’60s, when he and his boys ruled Hollywood and for a brief period competed with the Doors, their Elektra label mates, for sexiest rock band.
Fronted by original throat Colin Blunstone and original keyboardist Rod Argent, propelled by onetime Kinks bassist Jim Rodford, the Zombies delivered more than an hour of pretty good material, particularly tunes from “Odessey & Oracle,” the 1969 album that yielded the huge hit, “Time of the Season.” Rodford’s son, Steve, turned in yeoman drums and Keith Avery played predictable, excessive rock guitar. In addition, Blunstone’s voice has lost some of its highs, and Argent, whose eponymous group represented the dumbing down of both the Zombies and of rock ‘n’ roll, overplayed “Hold Your Head Up,” his 1972 Top Five smash.
The band finished its formal set with “She’s Not There,” a beautiful song that shares a rhythm bed with “Time of the Season.” Too bad Avery marred it with a showy solo, robbing it of the grace that made it so haunting. Word is an encore including “Summertime” was fine. I didn’t stick around.
The Wilson show was disappointing, but only commercially: If it drew more than 800 to the 3,000-seat Cleveland Music Hall, I would be surprised. As a show, though, it was transcendent. Backed by an 18-piece band featuring a full (Swedish) string section and the Wondermints, the vocal group that has helped the head Beach Boy since he began his commercial and artistic rehabilitation in the mid-’90s, Wilson turned in a long, fervent performance.
The first hour was devoted to later Beach Boys hits and non-hits, like “Sail on Sailor” and “Marcella,” a hard rocker from “Carl and the Passions.” But the second part was the keeper: all of “Smile,” the album Wilson recently released on Nonesuch. It was a 45-minute recreation of the album, itself a form of recreation of its own. “Smile” represents the closure of a period in Wilson’s life and output that came to a halt in 1967, when tunes he was writing for the projected “Smile” (originally called “Dumb Angel”) came to a standstill, stalled by Wilson’s mental illness.
With the backing and urging of the Wondermints, and the help of longtime collaborator Van Dyke Parks, Wilson completed “Smile” late last year and has been performing it in full both here and abroad. If you get a chance, hear it. It’s remarkable Americana, as complicated as anything by Copland and Gershwin. And seeing Wilson get through it – that mental illness is his condition – is unusually moving. He sat at his keyboards and sang each lyric carefully, eyes glued to the teleprompters at the edges of his instrument. And he sang them just right. He also conducted, goofily and movingly, and in the encore, when he and his band tore through such Beach Boys signatures as “Help Me Rhonda,” “I Get Around” and “Surfin’ USA,” he even played guitar.
One of the reasons the show was so powerful was you never knew whether Wilson would lose it. What if he takes his eyes off the teleprompter? What if his feet get tangled in the guitar wiring? Didn’t happen. But the tension was as terrific as the material, and the band, a weird assemblage of classically trained Swedish string players and top pop session men from Los Angeles, never faltered.
Maybe you can go home again. Brian Wilson seems to think so.