By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


August 18, 2005

When Brian Wilson performed "Smile" for the first time, in London in February 2004, concertgoer Paul McCartney stood and cheered. Wilson's lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, wept.

At the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Florida on Oct. 21, I was cheering -- and tearing -- too, and I had plenty of company as Wilson and his magnificent band opened with an hour of Wilson and Beach Boys songs followed by a performance of the complete "Smile."

It's a sure bet that nobody weeps at a concert by Mike Love's Beach Boys ghost band, at least not in a joyous way.

Wilson has been on the road for a half-dozen years for virtually the first time in his adult life, and he brings "Smile" to Roberts Orpheum Theater on Wednesday. He is no Springsteen, Bono or McCartney, energizing a crowd with time-honed concert pyrotechnics.

Wilson, at 63, is an injured human being, a product of child abuse, drug-exacerbated mental illness and years as a zombie being controlled by so-called doctors and advisers. A new wife has given him a new life, and he can testify to better living through prescribed chemistry. But Wilson in concert is still wooden and nearly lifeless physically.

When he shuffles out onstage to a thunderous standing ovation, he walks like a man afraid that he might unspool at any moment. He sits behind a huge keyboard -- and rarely touches it. His chatter with the audience is rehearsed and stiff. He's been using some of the same lines for five years.

Then the music starts, the music that earned him the label of genius when he was barely out of his teens, music that is so beautiful -- and, at times, spiritual -- that fans can't help but be swept away by the joy and innocence radiating from the stage.

The story is well-known by now, especially since "Smile" was released on CD last year. Wilson, who played bass in the Beach Boys, quit touring in 1965 ostensibly to concentrate on writing and studio production. But he was increasingly uncomfortable on the road, and you can see it in his eyes in photos taken before his breakdown. He seems shy, skittish and uneasy, never fully smiling.

That left the road work to brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson, cousin Love and pal Al Jardine. When they got home after touring behind "Pet Sounds," one of the greatest albums of the rock era but a commercial failure at the time, they were met with . . . even less commercial music, and they freaked.

Love, who wrote the lyrics to many of Wilson's car, surf and girl songs, wanted Brian to keep flogging that horse, and Love is still flogging it today. Brian, however, heard other sounds in his head: fire, water, wind, history, epic stories, growth of a nation, childhood, heroes, villains, good vibrations, even vegetables.

But under the weight of drugs, paranoia and resistance from the band, Wilson shelved "Smile." Bits and pieces -- "Good Vibrations," "Heroes and Villains," "Surf's Up" -- would dribble out over the years on subsequent albums and bootlegs.

More than 30 years later, with the support of his wife and his sympathetic band, especially Darian Sahanaja of LA's Wondermints, Wilson was persuaded to resurrect "Smile." It was a difficult project for Wilson, as documented so well in the film "Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of 'Smile.'" To Wilson, it brought closure; to the world, his "teenage symphony to God."

In Tampa, Wilson and his band opened with several "unplugged" numbers, sitting in a semicircle on stools and singing songs from the early Wilson songbook -- "Wendy" and "The Little Girl I Once Knew" among them -- before plugging in for a set that was breathtaking in its range: "I Get Around," "God Only Knows," "Surfer Girl," "California Girls," "Wouldn't It Be Nice."

After an intermission, "Smile" was played nonstop and with the kind of spirit and technical brilliance that might not have been reachable by the 1967 Beach Boys.

Wilson, at times childlike, sold every song despite all of his limitations, and loved every minute of it, and so did his band and his fans. It was part nostalgia, to be sure. But it was also exquisite to hear this music and share the passion of this artist, and to walk into the night in the glow of his encore tune, the blessing "Love and Mercy."