erasing clouds

Live Review: Brian Wilson's Smile Tour, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee Wisconsin, August 23, 2005

by matthew webber

Note: This article was originally published in the Waukesha Freeman

The audience was ready for fun, fun, fun. In a Pabst Theater filled with as many Hawaiian shirts as a Jimmy Buffett concert, all Brian Wilson had to do was show up.

So Wilson showed up. And then he just stood there.

Wilson's Beach Boys classics were reason enough for thousands of fans to dance, dance, dance in their seats. And God knows they did, spilling their good vibrations into the aisles.

Sometimes, Wilson smiled at this. Mostly, he displayed a stage-frightened smirk.

The Santa Claus lookalike in the third level was more animated than the performer, who sat behind a keyboard, not playing it, for 90 percent of his almost three-hour concert with his almost 20-piece band.

Wilson, nearly as famous for his decades of drugged-out reclusion as his Beach Boys' mini-symphonies, used the keyboard as a buffer between himself and the dancing baby boomers, who showered him with standing ovations and singalongs of every greatest hit.

Occasionally, he raised his right hand like a conductor or spoke some variation of "thank you." In the encore, he played a stand-up bass.

Throughout, he sang everything people wanted to hear, from songs about surfing to the entirety of last year's Smile album, the reason he is back on the road. Smile, which was supposed to be the follow-up to the canonical Pet Sounds, languished in the "lost tapes" netherworld for three decades before Wilson finally released it to universally sunny reviews.

On the CD and also in concert, the new songs' harmonies, recurring musical motifs and lyrics about American history are as complex, surprising and beautiful as anything in Wilson's catalog.

But in concert, their only negatives are Wilson's cracking tenor and uncomfortable stage presence.

The band - featuring the traditional guitar, bass, drums and keyboards, in addition to brass, strings, whistles and even a power drill - literally shook the rafters.

Sadly, if the music sounded great, and it did, it is because the musicians overpowered Wilson, whose vocals were low in the mix.

Seeing Wilson, a true American genius whom Paul McCartney credits with inspiring the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, run through many of the most beloved masterpieces in pop music history should have been as transcendent as listening to him on CD. His band played their fingers off to enhance the experience, and many fans exiting the Pabst Theater exalted the show's excellence.

For them, maybe it was worth paying $50-plus dollars just to thank Wilson for decades of unforgettable melodies.

Maybe it was enough for him just to perform, no matter how awkwardly, after holing up under his piano for almost the entirety of his youngest fans' lives. And at least he gave everyone an excuse to dance.

But wouldn't it be nice if Wilson seemed to enjoy his songs as much as everyone else does? God only knows what pop music would be without him.

E-mail the author at mattwebber at gmail dot com. For more writings and other information, visit

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