On September 2nd, 2005 Brian Wilson brought the magic of Smile to Berkeley, California. For a long-term fan such as myself it’s hard to express the reverence a show like this inspires. You almost don’t want to put it into words, because you know the word has already gotten out and many others have already lavished the praise on Brian, his band, and the awesome achievement of Smile. You don’t want the experience cheapened in anyway by speaking too much of it, but nevertheless, here it is, and there’s simply no escaping the reality that Smile is one of the highest musical achievements of rock & roll, and perhaps the summit of modern music.
Yes, it’s that good.
But beyond the gift of Smile, as a fan of Brian Wilson’s you really get your money’s worth during this particular concert series. On the drive up from Sacramento with my wife and our almost nine-year-old daughter—I played the album that brought me immediately and forever into this lifetime of love for the music of Brian Wilson. I played the Beach Boys: Endless Summer, a recording originally issued in 1974 as an inspired “best of” compilation. I say inspired because Endless Summer was so much more than a greatest hits package; it was the album that summed up the California soundtrack of the Beach Boys from “Surfin’ Safari” to “All Summer Long” (with "Good Vibrations" added to the compact disc version) and ushered in a whole new generation of fans to the best “feel good” music ever recorded. I personally just don’t know what I would have done with my childhood sorrow if I didn’t have the Boys harmonizing inside my 70’s headphones.
Back to Berkeley. I didn’t know if this particular show would include the earlier Beach Boys tunes or just Smile in its entirety. Smile alone was/is worth the price of admission and then some, but I didn’t want to listen to the Smile album on the way to the show, because I wanted the music new and alive from the band like fresh baked bread coming out of the oven. Meanwhile, we got in the mood with Endless Summer and I started to long for the follow-up album, Spirit of America. Those two compilations led to buying every other Beach Boys album, Dennis and Carl’s solo albums, and of course Brian’s later work.
Well, it wasn’t long before we realized the goods. After getting somewhat lost from smoky directions from people on the streets of Berkeley—we made it to the Greek Theatre just as Brian and band launched into: “Do it Again,” “Dance, Dance, Dance,” and “Breakaway”—three great songs right from the get-go. But a real thrill for me came with hearing “Drive-In” live. I’ve been attending Beach Boys concerts since 1977 and have never heard that great song live. I was getting my Endless Summer and my Spirit of America—all before Smile.
Beyond those earlier songs we received an awesome version of “Marcella” from the Carl & the Passions: So Tough Beach Boys album. “Marcella” is a great funky soul rocker that sounds even better live as Taylor Mills gives us a great vocal intro to get things kick-started, and speaking of Taylor Mills—this was truly the missing ingredient from the Beach Boys all along—a great female singer. She adds a terrific blend to Brian and the other guys. Her short duet with Brian on Johnny Mercer’s “I Wanna Be Around” showcases her voice and illustrates quite clearly that a Taylor Mills solo album can’t be far off.
After “Marcella” you get a sampling of Pet Sounds tunes, “Sloop John B.,” “Let’s Go Away For Awhile,” (with extra sax and drum portions for good measure), “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and “God Only Knows.” Again, that alone would be a night to remember. The Sounds addition was especially nice as my daughter goes to sleep to that album every night—the good stuff working on her subconscious. The band then breaks for twenty minutes—just time enough to grab an 8-dollar beer and back in time for Smile …
Simply put, Smile is everything you might expect in terms of a damn fine musical experience and more. You get everything from Jeffrey Foskett playing an awesome ukulele, to vegetable crunching, barnyard sounds, power tools, and Taylor Mills doing a little hula for ya. I was very pleased with the inclusion of vegetable crunching for “Vega-Tables,” and the all-important firemen hats and sirens for the Grammy winner: “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.” This really is Smile, not some cute take-off on the concept or a slick modern “inspired by” sort of thing. Smile is Smile—a dream visualized, a dream realized. You get the feeling that you’re in the midst of experiencing an important historical occurrence as it happens, like a famous painting, painting itself right in front of you. From start to finish it’s all A+ material with “Surf’s Up” being the magnum opus of the universe. If we as sentient creatures had only “Surf’s Up” as performed by Brian Wilson and his wonderful band to offer up as our time capsule of culture—we just might never have to fight off the alien invasion. No one, no thing, could ever want to destroy something so fine.