Story and photos by Matt SchwenkeStill touring in support of a musical gem that almost never was, Brian Wilson and his stage-filling band brought the sounds of Smile to life at the Pabst Theatre in a show that spanned Wilson's equally storied career.
Starting things off with a set full of hits, Wilson and company playfully strolled through "And Then I Kissed Her," "Surfer Girl," "California Girls," and "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" before changing things up with an instrumental that included some improv. With longtime band leader Jeffrey Foskett and keyboardist Darian Sahanja of The Wondermints helping cue complicated vocal sections and changes, harmonies and rhythms joined seamlessly song after song. Though Wilson never ventured from behind his keys, which he only played briefly, the great music had a sense of renewal and ease compared to his last Milwaukee performance opening for Paul Simon in 2001. Between some joking around on stage and a bit of acting, Wilson's most genuine smile came after noticing a young girl in pigtails dancing and singing along near the front of the stage. The range of ages in the crowd was truly admirable as young and old alike couldn't remain seated during "Help Me Rhonda," during which former Poi Dog multi-instrumentalist Paul Mertens shined on his sax solo, and during the catchy classic "California Girls." Ending the first set with the more recent and soulful "Sail On, Sailor," the only song that didn't seem to garner much enthusiasm was "Little Saint Nick"-- it is only August. Christmas song aside, the crowd was anxious for the second set to begin.
Returning after a short intermission, the same group of musicians awed the crowd with "Heroes and Villains," "Roll Plymouth Rock," and a interesting take on "You Are My Sunshine." It was as if Frank Zappa had collided with the Beach Boys. Moody compositions played out by the Stockholm Strings and Horns section augmented more stellar harmonies from the rest of the band, and as many of the songs played right into the next, the crowd stared intently as a different, more emotionally dynamic side of Wilson came to light. Other notables from this imaginative set of songs were "Cabin Essence" and "Child Is Father of Man." As the pop-challenging second set came to a close with "Blue Hawaii," Wilson re-familiarized himself with the crowd in a stirring version of "Good Vibrations."
After a lengthy introduction of all the artists who helped create the precise sounds of the evening, the crowd cheered the band on in a danceable encore of "Johnny B. Goode," "I Get Around," and "Barbara Ann," but it was the songs of Smile that resonated long after leaving the venue. One can only wonder what may have been if this album had been released almost forty years ago. Thankfully, this artistic creation was not lost for good.
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