Brian Wilson Wows S.F. with ‘Smile’

By David Watts Barton,  The Sacramento Bee, November 6, 2004

To say that a well-known artist was ahead of his time is a critical cliche. It might seem doubly ludicrous to say that about Brian Wilson, whose songs and productions for the Beach Boys in the first half of the 1960s virtually defined his time.

But Wilson’s greatest work, largely written and recorded in 1966, got too far ahead of his time, his band and his audience.

And, it seems, that work got a bit too far ahead of Wilson himself. Soon he had all but disappeared from pop music, a casualty whose time had passed, his genius squandered and his greatest hits reduced to beloved but quintessentially nostalgic pop relics.

But Thursday night at Davies Symphony Hall, Wilson, his music and his audience finally all caught up to the music he dared not release in 1966: “Smile.”

The album of that name was abandoned after Wilson’s fellow Beach Boys balked at recording it, and Wilson, hindered by drug abuse and emotional and mental problems, shelved the project. Scattered songs from it – most notably “Good Vibrations,” the Beach Boys’ biggest hit – appeared on other albums. But “Smile” was deemed too ambitious, even by Wilson.

But 38 years later – this summer – Wilson finally completed and released “Smile” on CD, and it was received with great fanfare by critics and Wilson’s relatively small but still rabidly devoted following.

Still, “Smile” was a studio creation. The idea of performing it live seemed far-fetched, even quixotic. Yet on Thursday night, Wilson’s 10-piece band, augmented by an eight-piece string and horn section, took this “lost masterpiece” to a level that even the studio recording couldn’t reach.

Wilson and the band warmed the audience up with a 65-minute first set that moved from a stripped-down version of the Beach Boys’ early hit “Surfer Girl” through 19 more songs that ranged throughout his career, up to the title cut from his 2004 solo album, “Gettin’ in Over My Head.”

Joking with his band and Jeffrey Foskett, his bandleader of 27 years, going back to the last days of the Beach Boys, Wilson looked happy and reasonably comfortable, though he has never been rock-star casual or confident.

Instead, he sat behind a keyboard that he played only occasionally, surrounded by a band of multi- instrumentalists who gave skill and soul to familiar songs such as “California Girls,” “I Get Around,” “Sloop John B.” and the latter-day hit “Sail On, Sailor,” as well as more obscure numbers such as “Add Some Music” and “Wendy.”

The capacity crowd of 2,500 responded with delight, fans springing to their feet on several occasions. But it was only on a glorious version of the 1966 hit “God Only Knows” that the band gave a hint of what was coming.

And it was just a small hint, for the three-part “Smile” is a piece of music unlike any other in pop or rock music. Without characters or action, it is neither a traditional musical nor a rock opera. Its lyrics are amusing and sometimes touching, but the overall concept of a trip west across the United States from New England (“Roll Plymouth Rock”) to the 50th state (“In Blue Hawaii”) is fairly thin.

It is Wilson’s music that matters, the band members moving from one instrument to another through the 50-minute piece, so that in addition to all the expected rock instruments, the audience heard banjo, ukulele, vibraphone, various whistles, horns, strings, saws, animal noises, and all manner of percussion – even a VW hubcap.

And it all fit, unified by the voices. Every member of Wilson’s 10-piece band sang, and sang beautifully, with six-, seven- and eight-part harmonies blending seamlessly over the music, the many parts of which flowed in and out of each other on songs that had been scattered over a number of Beach Boys albums, including “Heroes and Villains,” “Wonderful” and “Surf’s Up.”

Pulled together in this one breathtaking piece, these songs seemed more fully developed, and it became crystal clear how enormous Wilson’s genius had become by 1966.

Compared with the voices that sang his harmonies, the 62-year-old Wilson’s voice was a bit wan and, at times, harsh and even off pitch. But he sang particularly well on “Smile,” a sign, perhaps, of his artistic investment in this unheard music.

At the conclusion of “Smile” – a rousing “Good Vibrations” that had the audience up and dancing – the group returned for introductions (this being the last night of its U.S. tour) and then a string of party anthems that brought Wilson, his music and his audience full circle: “Do It Again,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Fun Fun Fun” gave the band and the audience a chance to rock out after the painstaking, precise challenges of “Smile.”

Despite the claims made for his “lost masterpiece,” only time will tell if Wilson is best remembered for the elegant beauties of “Smile” or the transcendent joys of his teenage celebrations of surfing, cars and girls.

But Thursday night, it was pure pleasure to hear all strains of his work, from the simplest to the most complex, placed in a context where it was all acknowledged as the expression of a man both complex and simple but, more than anything else, one of America’s greatest musical masters.