I have never been an enormous Brian Wilson fan. Sure, I think he’s one of the greatest songwriters of all time, but I just never felt any sort of emotional attachment. Before I purchased tickets for this concert, I had never spent any money on him. All of my Beach Boys records were once my stepdad’s, and I downloaded the new Smile from Soulseek. So I pretty much knew in advance that the concert wasn’t going to be a life-changing revelation, especially since our seats were way the fuck up in the second-to-last balcony. After the Vote for Change show, I was subconsciously expecting there to be big screens broadcasting the onstage action for us nosebleeders. But duh, this is Carnegie Hall, so no luck. Wilson and his eighteen-piece backing orchestra, all dressed in bright, happy colors, were bite-sized from where I sat, and I wish I had brought binoculars to see the expressions on Wilson’s face as he sang. Instead I had to make do with some wacko hand gestures and between-song comments like “We’re going to do another pretty song now,” “I’d like to dedicate this song to my daughter Wendy. It’s called ‘Wendy’!” and “This next one is Paul McCartney’s favorite song of all time” (that last one was before “God Only Knows”).
The show opened with Wilson surrounded by about ten of his musicians standing in a semi-circle like a university a cappella group. They played semi-acoustic versions of a bunch of hits and rarities, including “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” which, apparently, Wilson insists on performing at every concert he does. It became obvious fairly quickly that Wilson was going to play a very small part in the spectacle. His voice was (purposefully, I suppose) drowned out by the others’ during most of the concert, and when he did sing loudly, it was often accompanied by several backing supporters. As anyone who’s heard the new Smile knows, his voice is surprisingly strong, aged with a fine grit that makes him sound stately. Sure, it was a bit shaky in concert, but that added to the whole “fragile genius” mystique.
Wilson sat behind a keyboard during the Smile set, although he barely played it. The orchestra did a superb job recreating the album’s baroque grandeur, although while listening I realized that my tolerance for baroque grandeur is relatively low. The hokey touches—whistles, odd percussion, fire hats for “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”—made me feel embarrassed for the performers, like I was watching a high school production of Chicago or something. But everybody else, including the white-haired man in a business suit sitting next to me, seemed to be enjoying it, so maybe I just need to stop being such a snob.
The lengthy encore, which stretched the concert to a Springsteen-esque two-and-a-half hours was easily the best part of the evening. It covered most of the Beach Boys’ peerless early hits, including “Barbara Ann”, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, “Fun Fun Fun” and “Help Me, Rhonda”. Wilson stood up for the first time during the entire show and “played” the bass on a few songs, which was a joy to watch. It was also a joy to watch the mostly middle-aged crowd having a blast, because we young folk frequently forget that our parents don’t stop having fun once we’re born.
And now, Jason Gross’s take on the evening:
I liked the campfire sing-a-long at the beginning and the greatest hits review at the end. Enough though I ADMIRED Smile, I still wasn't sold on it even though I could appreciate it a little more seeing it live. Other than "Heroes and Villains" and "Good Vibrations" (which they wisely broke off as singles long ago), the songwriting was a little too baroque, full of little nods to those two songs and "Americana" songs (which works better in something like X's "True Love Pt. 2"). Guess it's a parlor game to figure out what would have happen if it came out back in the day but I have the feeling that Beatles still would have "won." Notice that the crowd last night got really into it when he started "Vibrations" and then did the oldies? My suspicion is that as much as they were there to honor him for finally closing a chapter on history ("atta boy!"), they were REALLY there for "Fun Fun Fun" and "Surfin' Safari" (didn't you love how the Swedish string section got down and did the Swim and the Monkey?). Still, I was glad I was there to see it all 'cause it still is history. Also, it's nice that Wilson finally found a sympathetic group of obsessive nuts to finish this thing but how much more legit is it to recreate it with a band half his age just as Mike Love tours with a bunch of kids and calls it "The Beach Boys and Friends"?