We caught Brian Wilson and the SMiLE tour the other night. If it comes to your town I’d recommend catching it, but you might want to show up a little late.

The show works like this: the first half is all Beach Boys songs plus a couple of oldies covers; the second half is SMiLE, and then there’s a mini-set for encore with a few more really big Beach Boys tunes.

There were a bunch of problems with the first set. First of all, while Brian’s voice may once have been a good one for singing those songs, it isn’t any more. Second, the huge SMiLE ensemble includes strings and horns and multiple guitarists, and the arrangements end up big and pushy and get in the way of the vocals, and these songs are all about the vocals. On the upside, the ensemble also includes four or five terrific backup singers (all but one double on instruments), and when the horns and guitars shut up and the harmonies covered up Brian’s voice, it sounded pretty wonderful.

Then there was the SMiLE set. This is some 45 minutes long and while there are distinct songs, they run together and there are lots of instrumental bridges; and the songs are complicated, they’re not three-chord surf ditties. The music has those surf harmonies, but it’s also a mix of Art Song and Rock Opera and Dada surrealism and outbursts of raw noise. It’s complicated and it needs a band that’s big and virtuosic, which the band is. The front line of singers were doubling on guitars and keyboards and vibes and French Horns and ukuleles and clarinets and some others I probably missed. The horn and string parts were well-written and well-played. Brian’s voice may not be all that beautiful, but his timing was dead-on and he seemed way more committed and intense.

I liked SMiLE, a lot. And though Good Vibrations may not originally been written as part of this work, it fit perfectly as the finale. That song benefits from a big ensemble and an extended, complex arrangement; there are those, serious about music, who have suggested that Good Vibrations is the best pop song ever written. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but that performance was five or ten minutes of pure perfection, something you don’t get that many chances at, and I’m glad I was there.

The encore set was OK, I’m old and cynical enough to have suspension-of-disbelief issues around Help Me Rhonda and Barbara Ann, but hey, they’re mostly harmless and they didn’t screw up the arrangements with horns.

Brian himself, he’s had a tough time over the years, he walks funny and talks funny and isn’t exactly a showman and not really that much of a singer either. But still, that’s some awfully good music.

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August 31, 2005
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