Had the good fortune to catch Brian Wilson on his ‘Smile’ tour at the Orpheum Theater last night. The highlight was a complete rendition of the recently completed album, finally finished after all these years after 1967.
It was a flawless performance by an extremely accomplished band. The only missing element was the unique voices of the Beach Boys in their younger days. Brian’s voice is that of an old man, gruff and limited in range. The other singers in the group cover the gaps here, and do it perfectly satisfactorily if a trifle anonimously. But one cannot remake the past, and the greatest thing about this tour and the album released in 2004 is that this wonderful music is here at last, put together as it should be.
Just what effect this album would have had if released in 1967 as planned is hard to say. It’s whimsical, often very funny – and really does make you smile – as well as inventive and powerfully poignant with songs such as “Surf’s Up”, “Child Is Father To The Man”, “Wonderful” and “Cabin Essence”.
Now much of this material has leaked out on various Beach Boys’ albums beginning with the enigmatic “Smiley Smile” that was squeezed out to replace the collapsing “Smile” project. In most cases, the Beach Boys renditions are equal to that on the new record, surpassing the newer recordings quite clearly on “Surf’s Up” and “Good Vibrations”. But The Beach Boys never gave proper context to this material and on “Smile” it has precisely that. Consequently it is a treat to hear all of these songs sequenced and bracketed by thematic cross-references precisely as Brian Wilson intended.
So hearing “Surf’s Up”, a certain prime candidate for the greatest pop/rock song ever written, was magical even if Brian could not match Carl’s affecting vocal on The Beach Boys’ 1960s recording. Other songs, such a “Wonderful”, “Child Is Father To The Man”, and “Heroes And Villians” were also given fresh power. And of course there was the unreleased material, all of which fitted seamlessly into the whole.
“Smile” would have been my favorite Beach Boys album if it been released as intended. It would have been better than “Sgt. Pepper” as a prime artifact of the wildly inventive psychelidic mid-1960s. Ultimately, it probably would not have eclipsed “Pet Sounds”, much as “Sgt. Pepper” has been finally overshadowed by the mighty “Revolver”. But it would have been loved.
So here we today, enjoying a miracle as Brian Wilson overcomes his personal mental illness to perform live – something that really seemed completely off the table for the last three decades of the 20th century. In doing so, Wilson has moved “Smile” completely into the present where it is just as magical as it ever would have been in the past. There are few things out there that one can be more thankful for.