Smile? I Was Positively Beaming!
Financial struggles have meant that I've missed Brian Wilson on all the occasions he's been to London's Festival Hall....until now that is. Last Friday, I bit the bullet and bought a ticket just a couple of hours before the show was due to start. Perhaps familiarity breeds apathy (this is now Wilson's third stint of shows in London) but I was still surprised to find lots of empty seats. I'd heard plenty of reports of these shows being momentous, joyous, perhaps even quasi-religious experiences, but I remained sceptical given Wilson's apparent frailty. I have also questioned the merits of playing special sets devoted to one particular album, especially when your band is committed to replicating the original material note for note in a way that seems excessively precise and slavishly pointless. I still question this way of constructing a live set - but whilst, for me and many others, 'Pet Sounds' remains sacred as the greatest example of how pop composition and studio technique can combine to create pure magic, 'Smile' has more mystique. Wilson's breakdown left it unfinished back in '67, but both in its raw form and its new seamless completion as a 'rock opera in three movements' (no - don't make it sound like Tommy - an infinitely inferior and smug piece of petty posturing if ever there was one), it is both flawed and deeply fascinating.
Wilson keeps us waiting for what many still believe is his masterpiece. To my mind, the electric and acoustic sets that precede it are just as significant. The lights dim, and from behind a curtain we can hear a lot of shuffling around and murmuring. Then an anouncement: - ' We are The Pilgrims!' and a bizarre toast (Brian: 'Will we have a good show?', Jeff Foskett: 'Yes we'll have a good show!). The whole band (and it is sizeable, at least thirteen musicians by my rather hasty count) are gathered together on one side of the stage, clustered more like an extended family than a musical collective. The opening few songs have the intimate, informal feel of a campfire singalong. They start with 'In My Room', and the exquisitely arranged harmonies are immediately striking. It is a wonderful joy to hear this kind of close singing in a live setting - it is all too rare in popular music today. Many more Beach Boys classics follow, including a superbly jaunty take on 'Wendy', a great song that I had not expected to hear.
The electric set begins with a robust, enthralling version of 'This Whole World', one of Wilson's best songs and one of the highlights of the somewhat neglected 'Sunflower' album. The band sounded metronomically tight, but still seems to have an exhuberance and spirit necessary for a convincing live performance. Some of these songs, touching and whimsical in their original forms, become genuinely moving this evening - 'Add Some Music To Your Day' and 'California Girls' are particularly enchanting. A lot of credit must go to Jeff Foskett, an arranger and bandleader of remarkable skill, for he has developed the sound of this band so it is both reverent to the distinctive Beach Boys sound, but also alert and alive. There are an obligatory handful of songs from new album 'Gettin' In Out of My Head', which has largely received short thrift from the music press, but I felt the songs stood up remarkably well in such timeless and delectable company. They are warmly nostalgic and delicately involving. Brian dedicates 'Soul Searching' (a song also given to Solomon Burke for his recent album) to his brother Carl, and it sounds impassioned and heartfelt. It is followed by a genuine surprise, a sublime rendition of Dennis Wilson's 'Forever', a song that is simple in harmony, but devastatingly affecting in its result. Songs from 'Pet Sounds' are thin on the ground this evening, with merely a slightly botched version of 'God Only Knows' and 'Sloop John B'. The former, save for Brian's faltering vocal, is faithfully rendered from the original template, the latter has more energy. 'God Only Knows' is such an expertly orchestrated, brilliantly composed masterpiece of a pop song that any performance could not really do it justice - and tonight's was probably far from the best.
There is no doubt that Wilson's voice has declined. People in the audience mutter that it was much better last year, but I remember seeing a performance on TV and noticing similar failings then. He struggles to hit high notes, and sometimes gives up altogether, allowing his dependable and impressive band to carry the vocals themselves. What is most fascinating is how he deals with these limitations in the way that he cuts short phrasings and forces out lines. His style is less sugary now, and more aggressive, and it alters the way I hear some of these songs. 'God Only Knows' for example sounds almost possessive this evening. Watching his constant grin and extravagant hand gestures (he sits at a keyboard, but hardly ever plays it) means there is never any shortage of visual engagement on stage - and his genuine commitment to the material and interaction with both band and audience more than compensate for his vocal flaws. Anyway, the voice is at least clear and comprehensible, unlike Bob Dylan's. After a rousing, elongated 'Sail on Sailor', the band disappear for a well-earned break.
Then comes 'Smile' in its entirety. At the risk of sounding somewhat sacrilegious, I must confess to being undecided on the merits of 'Smile'. Bits of it are completely astounding, and it is all technically dazzling. It is undoubtedly one of the bravest attempts at extended composition in the rock canon, and with its use of vegetables and occasionally inane lyrics, it also has the benefit of a self-mocking sense of humour. However, it is also remarkably bitty, and the moments that work best are the by now familiar songs - 'Heroes and Villains', 'Surf's Up', 'Cabinessence' and a triumphant finale of 'Good Vibrations' which gets the whole crowd on their feet. It feels like an outpouring of consistently interesting but loosely connected ideas. The arrangement is deftly handled and the performance remarkably controlled, but I didn't connect emotionally with this music in quite the same way as with the classics in the earlier set. I'm amazed the any band could reproduce this complex work on stage. There was much instrument swapping and athletic movement across the stage. Nevertheless, it may not quite be the masterpiece I had convinced myself it was. It is a deeply impressive composition, but less convincing as a mode of communication.
Still, it's not over yet. Brian Wilson has to be assisted back on stage (he suffers from chronic back pain at the moment), but he still delivers a monumental encore that provides a peerless lesson in how to entertain an audience. Jeff Foskett first introduces the entire band on an individual basis (it seems to take forever), but we then get a continous blast through a number of surf classics, including 'Surfin' USA', 'Barbara Ann', 'I Get Around', 'Fun Fun Fun' and a glorious 'Help Me Rhonda'. By this stage everyone is dancing, and the sense of unrestrained joy is palpable. After two-and-a-half hours of carefully prepared, brilliantly performed pop music, I felt emotionally and physically exhausted. I've been critical in the right places in this review - but I would still place this gig firmly in the top five best gigs I've ever seen. It felt like a shared experience - which means much more than any hope of musical or technical perfection. The innocence and naivety of Wilson's songs perhaps demand a human, flawed performance, and whilst this could have been an evening of grand, perhaps even pompous seriousness - in the end, it felt like a celebration of one of rock's greatest living talents. There is a second encore of the stripped down piano ballad 'Love and Mercy', easily the most candidly idealistic and nakedly naive song in the Wilson catalogue. Had it come from, Damien Dempsey, it would sound dreadful. It is testament to Wilson's considerable charm and honesty that it sounds unfashionable, refreshing, touching - a Hollywood ending for an evening of sweet harmony.