"This is a song my dad and I wrote in the late '60s," Brian Wilson helpfully offered four songs into the first half of his two main sets on Sunday, Aug. 28, at the Paramount Theatre before he and his band began "Breakaway," a Beach Boys hit from 1969. It was a sweet gesture, but it wasn't as if most of the audience wasn't already at least somewhat familiar with the Wilson family's history and attendant drama— abusive father, lawsuits galore between Wilson and cousin and fellow Beach Boy Mike Love, Brian's drug-addled retreat from the public eye—and plenty of us know it in more detail than that, thanks to the reams of copy rock dreamers have expended on the topic for four decades now. In fact, it's arguable that Wilson would be playing somewhere far smaller if that drama hadn't helped seal the myth his music had already spurred. The pockets of standing-O's greeting Wilson and his band (11 pieces in basic form, Wilson included, 14 with the horn players, 19 with the string section) before they'd played a note attested to that: You don't even have to be good—we're just glad you're here, they seemed to indicate. But despite Wilson's occasionally flat singing and horrifying state-fair renditions of "Help Me Rhonda" (complete with the stage-right guitarist/singer interjecting "Now everybody sing!" right before the chorus) and "California Girls," the show was not just good but frequently amazing.
Wilson's more ardent faithful are so used to grandstanding hyperbole that discussing Smile, the scrapped 1967 Beach Boys album that Wilson remade last year for Nonesuch, as nothing short of a "miracle" is par for the course. Really, folks, it's just a record— a grand, lovely, generous bunch of songs, fragments, ideas, and sonic fancy that hangs together so weirdly and beautifully it was impossible for me in 2004 not to hear it as an after-the-fact predecessor of some of my favorite made-from-scraps albums (DJ Shadow's Endtroducing . . . , the Avalanches' Since I Left You). That's how Smile came across live, too, when Wilson performed it in its entirety during the second set. Only the show's stagier aspects—the musicians brandishing leafy greens, peppers, and carrots during "Vegetables," the power-tools pocket symphony, the "fire" tableaux during "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" (hats, hose, red-lit rags blown upward by fans, i.e., "flames")—brought to mind a school production of Our Town as much as the inner cosmos of the chemicals that helped inspire the music.
The first set was paced just as well. "Do It Again" opened it up appropriately, a nostalgia-tinged euphoric burst; a band member my friend Liza dubbed "Ryan Seacrest" had a birthday cake brought out just before the band struck into "When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)." And Wilson announced, "There are some of my favorite songs from the Pet Sounds album," before going straight into "Sloop John B"— the one song on that album the diehards are always nitpicking about. Not tonight they weren't.