Live Music + Gig Reviews

Brian Wilson @ Mann Center, Philadelphia

16 August 2005

Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson

Legendary Beach Boy-turned-hipster-icon Brian Wilson and his 17-piece band brought the SMiLe Tour to Philadelphia last night.

Wilson famously disappeared from the music scene for the better part of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s due to mental health and drug problems that had arisen when he was first working on the SMiLe album back in 1967. Since completing that album in 2004, the SMiLe Tour has been one triumph after the next.

While rain poured throughout the show at the partially open but fully covered Mann Center, Wilson nonetheless produced an exhilarating, two-hour-plus show of some of the finest music of the pop-era. And, at 62, his famous voice was in good form, if not what it was in 1967. An almost bizarre mix of the “golden oldies” crowd and the in-the-know youngsters that have subsequently discovered Wilson’s genius all spent a good portion of the evening on their feet.

The first part of the show included various Beach Boys hits, including highlights from the masterpiece Pet Sounds. One word to describe all of these songs is simply lush. Why many see Wilson as peerless among songwriters of the rock genre was made perfectly clear. Even the seemingly innocuous early Beach Boys hits that younger generations may write off as outdated or even sappy, such as Help Me Rhonda or Sloop John B, took on new life when given the full symphonic treatment – even becoming near-sonic masterpieces. And for those that have devoted significant portions of their lives to Pet Sounds, little can match the experience of finally hearing Wouldn’t It Be Nice and God Only Knows performed by Wilson live.

Part two of the show was SMiLe in its entirety. The album has been aptly described as psychedelic Americana and runs from the classic Beach Boys a cappella harmonies of the opener Our Prayer/Gee, to bits of pure Americana, such as a chorus from My Only Sunshine, to the surf music of, well, Surf’s Up, and through the psychedelic dissonance of Mrs O’Leary’s Cow, before finally finishing with perhaps the ultimate album closer: Good Vibrations. It is interesting to note that in a time when orchestras seem almost desperate to get younger audiences to even notice them (the Mann Center was advertising an upcoming orchestral treatment of Led Zeppelin?!), Wilson and his world-class band may be the greatest link to that audience one could hope for.

The show’s extended encore began with Johnny B Goode, appropriate considering that one of the Beach Boys’ biggest early hits, Surfin’ USA, was a reworking of Chuck Berry’s classic. The rest of the encore was a medley of remaining Beach Boys hits (Barbara Ann, Surf City, etc.) that ensured that none of the, um, really old oldheads, went home missing out on a favourite. Thus by the end of the evening, even the coolest of hipsters and their grandmothers left the show thoroughly satisfied. If that is not a testament to true music genius, I don’t know what is.

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