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 Smile's orchestral flourishes, seemed thrilled to be playing with Wilson. They danced, chomped vegetables and even donned fire hats during "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," a ferociously atonal tune to which Wilson once attributed supernatural fire-starting powers.
Amazingly, the recorded version of Smile pales in comparison to the live experience. Cascading vocal harmonies were backed up by exotic rhythms and surf guitar, with band members switching between instruments ranging from xylophone to French horn. The sheer musicality they displayed was phenomenal; leaving the concert later, I overheard fans gushing about the players as much as their employer.
Although Smile is quite sophisticated musically, it's not overly serious. Neither is its creator. During his performance, Wilson pantomimed each lyric, like a child eager to get his message across. At one point, he led the crowd in a yelling contest; at another, he gave himself a bear hug.
While some tunes came across as mournful, others were closer to campfire sing-alongs. In Wilson's world, melody, harmony and tone are employed to paint aural pictures. Barbershop harmonies, classical chorales and patchwork psychedelia all came together to envelop the audience in a world of sound. And anybody who can lead 18 professional musicians through a cappella impersonations of farm animals deserves some credit. What's truly amazing, however, is how these seemingly disparate elements were threaded together in performance.
Smile's lyrics contain multiple references to exploration, both literal and metaphorical. Plymouth Rock, the Sandwich Isles and Hawaii provide the backdrop for this transcendental travelogue. Old-time imagery such as "the Grand Cooley workers on the railroad," and "I'll give you a home on the range," runs alongside the quasi-metaphysical koan, "A child is the father of the man."
As the Smile suite made its slow sashay across the Americas, the audience remained transfixed. Each tune was like a glimpse into Wilson's unique worldview. From the juvenile romp of "Barnyard" and "Vegetables" to the baroque splendor of "Surf's Up" and "Cabinessence," the compositions exhibited an uncommonly durable charm. Wilson's masterpiece will surely live on long after he's gone.
The lysergic shivers of Smile's closer, "Good Vibrations," had the crowd on Cloud Nine. Back in '66, Beach Boy Mike Love, who may have been looking for any excuse to provoke Wilson, deemed the tune's original lyrics too esoteric. Wilson acquiesced, and a compromised version made it to the top of the charts. Now the tune finally features its intended prose: "I bet I know what she's like / And I can feel how right she'd be for me / It's weird, how she comes in so strong / And I wonder what she's pickin' up from me?" It's anybody's guess how these lines could spark such controversy, but nice to hear the piece as its composer intended.
A giant sun emblazoned with Wilson's visage appeared over the stage as the tune's eerie theramin and staccato cello worked their magic. In the middle of it all, the once and future "King of Pop" seemed on top of the world. During the song's final note, one of Wilson's guitarists flipped back his instrument to reveal the word "Smile" in a gloriously trippy font. The audience hardly needed encouragement.