Nearly 40 years ago, Brian Wilson abandoned what was intended to be his recorded masterwork, the "teenage symphony to God" called Smile. In the decades that followed, the gifted pop composer and former Beach Boy slipped further away from his family and fans in a downward spiral of addiction, depression and paranoia. While recent years have been rehabilitative, Wilson still struggles daily with his personal demons. So it came as a shock when he announced last year the resurrection of the long-dormant Smile project, in the form of a brand-new recording and concert tour. I had the pleasure of hearing Wilson and his young, 18-piece band perform at Montreal's Place des Arts a couple of weeks ago.
Considered by most rock critics as the greatest "lost" album in music history, Smile is a harmonically complex, modular song cycle conceived as a psychedelic paean to young America. Although many of its tunes have surfaced over the years in bootleg form, until recently the true shape and sequence of Smile remained a mystery to everyone but Wilson and his lyrical collaborator, Van Dyke Parks. Even after the album's October 2004 release, many fans wondered how the tunes would come across in a live setting. Only a rock 'n' roll chamber orchestra could do justice to such exquisite material. And that's exactly what Wilson assembled.
I'd heard Wilson and his freakishly talented band on the acclaimed "Pet Sounds" tour in 2002. Then he looked every bit his 62 years, nervously scanning the audience and speaking in a halting, clipped tone. The concert itself, at Boston's Avalon, was brilliantly executed and incredibly moving, but Wilson's legendarily troubled psyche still seemed haunted.
At the Montreal show, the composer was far more stable. While his non sequiturs remained hilariously unpredictable, it was obvious that recent successes have bolstered his confidence. When people called Wilson a genius back in the late '60s, it contributed to his mental breakdown. Nowadays, he seems proud to bear the mantle. By deciding to tackle Smile, Wilson has finally made peace with a period of his life that was marred by personal and professional setbacks. Completing the heady concept album after all these years may have served as a personal exorcism.
Wilson took the stage to a standing ovation, then sat behind a keyboard that he played only once during the evening. Launching into a pre-Smile set that included plenty of Beach Boys classics and a handful of obscurities, the group sounded tight, if a bit stiff. Several tunes came across as elaborate elevator music, or worse, as museum pieces. There were too many familiar oldies for my taste; I would have preferred "Busy Doin' Nothing" -- an early '70s cut in which Wilson gives actual directions to his Laurel Canyon, California, home -- in place of the moldy "Help Me Rhonda."
Still, the harmonies on "In My Room" and "Surfer Girl" remained dazzlingly fresh, and the more rockin' numbers, such as "Marcella" and "Sail On, Sailor," showed that Wilson enjoys mixing things up.
A puzzling moment occurred mid-set when he introduced a holiday tune. As the well-heeled boomer audience stared ahead blankly, Wilson belted out the line, "Christmas always comes this time each year." Has it really been moved to August?
After a short break, Wilson and the band began the Smile cycle with the madrigal-esque "Our Prayer." Swathed in blue lights, they segued into a spot-on rendition of "Heroes & Villains," a gritty tale of gunpowder and lost glory. Wilson's voice was in far better shape than I'd anticipated; he was hitting notes that I would have thought well out of his range. Assisted on the highest falsettos by "stunt Brian" Jeffrey Foskett, Wilson glided through Smile's majestic melodies as though it were still 1967.
His touring band includes members of the multi-instrumental and vocal group The Wondermints, an L.A. band renowned for their flawless recreation of the California sunshine-pop sound. In addition, Wilson's entourage features singer Taylor Mills. Although having a woman on board might be unsettling to some Beach Boys purists, her classic good looks and coy demeanor certainly pleased this crowd. And her terrific voice meshed brilliantly with Wilson's, giving the music a new dimension.
Members of the Stockholm String and Horn Ensemble, hired to reproduce <