By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


August 26, 2005

So it has come to this in the late-life career renaissance of Brian Wilson: People young enough to be his grandchildren are turning out in big numbers to hear his Beach Boys-era songs, and they're bringing props.

At Roberts Orpheum Theater on Wednesday night, the young and hip cheered next to the old with bad hips as Wilson and his great band performed an hour of Beach Boys tunes followed by a full performance of his recently resurrected masterpiece, "Smile."

In a section down front to the left, one group of young fans, their faces bathed in light from the stage, gazed up at Wilson, smiling, swaying and singing along to "Do It Again," "Surfer Girl" and "California Girls," radio hits 20 years before they were born.

Meanwhile, at stage front, several fans broke out red plastic toy fire helmets for the "Smile" fire sequence ("Mrs. O'Leary's Cow") while a few others were ready with carrots and celery for the whimsical "Vega-Tables."

Front and center onstage, sitting behind a big keyboard and a pair of teleprompters, was Wilson, whose composing and studio wizardry in the '60s fed a rivalry with the Beatles that inspired both bands to record the best music of the decade. That pressure also contributed to years of depression and drugs that kept Wilson off the road until the late '90s.

Wilson still seems to have trouble concentrating, and his stage presence is endearingly wooden. But his fabulously sympathetic and talented band, led by guitarist Jeff Foskett and keyboard player Darian Sahanaja, keeps the boss on track.

Opening with "Do It Again" -- it was a Beach Boys play for nostalgia in 1969 -- Wilson packed 20 tunes from the era of the 2 1/2-minute pop song into the show's first hour.

But for every hit such as "Dance, Dance, Dance" and "Help Me, Rhonda," there was an album track or relative rarity that brought a grin to longtime fans, including "Drive In" (1964), "Then I Kissed Her" (1965) and the inspirational "Break Away," a criminally ignored single from 1969.

A "Pet Sounds" suite included "Sloop John B"; "Wouldn't It Be Nice"; the instrumental "Let's Go Away for Awhile," which allowed sax man Paul Mertens, drummer Jim Hines, percussionist Nelson Bragg and vibes star Scott Bennett to show their chops; and the gorgeous "God Only Knows." That song and the later, rocking "Marcella," both originally sung by Wilson's late brother Carl, produced a bittersweet tug.

For "Smile," Wilson's band of 10 was joined by Sweden's eight-member Stockholm Strings and Horns. His "teenage symphony to God," by turns accessible and eclectic, is composed of three movements dealing with America, childhood and the elements.

The innocence of the piece is contagious, and its most famous numbers -- "Heroes and Villains," "Good Vibrations" and "Surf's Up" -- helped keep the energy stoked.

"Smile" was accorded several standing ovations, and the moving performance led into two encores featuring a nod to hometowner Chuck Berry ("Johnny B. Goode") and the classics -- "Fun Fun Fun" and "Surfin' USA" -- that were built on the Berry model.

Add the sweet nightcap of "Love and Mercy," and the 1,000 or so in the hall had every reason to smile.