Brian makes me SMiLE

I don’t normally plunk down any of my hard-earned (well, just earned) money on any form of entertainment unless I have a reasonable expectation that it will be worth it. But when I found out a few months ago that Brian Wilson was coming to New Jersey and performing his seminal work, SMiLE, I knew I had to take the chance. I’ll cut to the chase and say that I was not disappointed. In fact, I had a great time.

It’s not that I didn’t think I wouldn’t, but Brian’s musical output since the late ’60s has been inconsistent at best, wretched at worst. But I think that sometimes gets glossed over by critics, and especially by his fans. And I think the reason is that so many fans and critics want so desperately to be able to view him as the musical savant he really was in the ’60s. Brian’s mental and legal troubles over the last 3+ decades of the 20th century are well documented.

When Brian re-emerged in the mid ’90s with new music, it was met with more critical and fan approval than it probably deserved. But while the music wasn’t very noteworthy, it was what the music represented that was – Brian was finally back in the game. Instead of waxing nostalgic over 40-year-old music, fans and critics could now anticipate what might come next.

Since the late ’90s Brian has been touring regularly, backed by a crack band that does an able job of approximating the classic Beach Boys sound (it will never be duplicated). It was this band that worked with Brian to re-record and finally release Smile last year. Bootleg versions of the original 1967 recordings have been available for years, so very little of what was on the album came as a surprise. What did surprise many (including me) was just how good the new album was. Honestly, the only thing I really missed was the Beach Boys. A lot of people have written that the new SMiLE album makes the old bootlegs pointless, but I don’t buy that for a second. Listen to the original version of “Our Prayer” and you will know what I mean. There is something about the Beach Boys’ harmonies that I cannot put into words. I’ve listened to vocal outtakes of theirs, no longer than 30 seconds, in a loop for about 30 times in one sitting. I love them that much.

Oh yes, the concert. Brian’s voice sounded better than I thought it would. If anything, it’s been getting stronger every year since he started touring again. Obviously the golden falsetto is gone, and to compensate Brian now takes a completely different part in the vocal arrangement than he used to.

It was obvious that Brian was having a lot of fun, although I don’t think he ever feels totally comfortable on stage. Now, even forty years ago Brian was not a dynamic frontman. But back then he had Mike Love to assume that role. Now it falls on him, and it does make for some awkward moments. As the first set ended, Brian just walked off the stage as soon as his vocals were done, leaving the band to finish the song by themselves. And when it came time to introduce the band at the end of the evening, Brian was not involved in that at all.

But I went to see him perform, and to that end it was a success. In addition to performing the whole of SMiLE, Brian played a ton of classic Beach Boys and some of his better solo work. By the end of the night I was singing and dancing along to some of the best pop songs ever – “Sloop John B,” “Barbara Ann” (which I like much better live), and “Fun Fun Fun” just to name a few.

I have to say that the crowd was pretty lame, outside of the front section. As expected, I was one of the youngest people there not to be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Everyone seemed to enjoy the show, to be sure, but I didn’t see a whole lot of movement out of them for the most part. Not that I was expecting a mosh pit or anything like that, but a little more energy would’ve been nice.

I missed Brian when he did his Pet Sounds tour a few years back, so I did not want to miss this. I’m glad I didn’t. I got the chance to witness a national treasure perform some of this country’s greatest music.

P.S. – I support the right of any artist to make money from merchandising since they typically get shafted on record deals. But really, $35 for a t-shirt is just too much. Sorry Brian, I couldn’t justify spending that much money.