- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2004

If Brian Wilson had only stuck to the old Beach Boy hits, as he did for half of Sunday night’s show at the Warner Theatre, and if Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and E Street Band bassist Garry W. Tallent (each in town for last night’s Vote for Change concert), hadn’t dropped by for a celebratory “Surfin’ U.S.A.” encore, then it would’ve merely been an above-average oldies revue.

But Mr. Wilson wasn’t in the building to run through “I Get Around,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “California Girls” or “Help Me, Rhonda” for the umpteenth time, though the Warner’s sold-out audience certainly didn’t mind that he did.

Mr. Wilson, 62 and looking all of it, is on the road to perform in entirety the once-was-lost, now-it’s-found masterpiece “Smile,” the Beach Boys’ Americana concept album that he released two weeks ago, nearly 40 years after composing it.

One fan called it “the greatest cover album of all time” — Mr. Wilson re-recorded it with his touring ensemble — and every Beach Boy classic, deep “Pet Sounds” cut and obligatory nod to Mr. Wilson’s new solo album that came before and after it felt like, respectively, the undercard and the icing on the cake.

Well?

The skeptic in me says the performance of “Smile” was flawless; it could’ve spilled right off the record, with crystalline sound separation and a symphony of musicians — including the eight-piece Stockholm String & Horns and the L.A. power pop band the Wondermints — hitting every harmonic note and instrumental quirk without breaking a sweat.

The question is, did Mr. Wilson even need to be there? Yup, he sang all right, but there were times when he stopped and you’d have been hard-pressed to notice. He sat behind a keyboard but barely touched it all night; it was there primarily to hold the Teleprompter screens from which Mr. Wilson read song lyrics.

Still, he was every bit the uncontested star of the show — mainly because he tried so hard not to be. When the curtain opened for a half-hour set of unplugged Beach Boys songs, Mr. Wilson sat on a stool, squished in a semi-circle of bandmates. It looked like he was hiding.

There’s something endearingly, tragically geeky about Mr. Wilson. He doggie-paddled while he sang and introduced one song with the words, “Here’s an old Beach Boy classic for ya, from the ‘60s.” (You don’t say?) And when a standing ovation greeted the end of a magnificent “God Only Knows,” Mr. Wilson said, without joshing, “It’s a pretty tune; I can see why you like it.”

Indeed.

With more personal demons than one guy can handle, Mr. Wilson has no time for pomposity or star-tripping. When he bolted from the stage after a solidly professional 2 hours of performing, he looked like he’d willingly, if not joyfully, given his audience a gift.

And that’s exactly what Sunday night was.

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