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London Calling

SMiLE, You're in Rock 'n' Roll Heaven with Brian Wilson

By Published: March 3, 2004

After that acoustic opening section, the band dispersed to their instruments and Wilson sat at an electric piano at the front, centre stage. (He doesn't play the piano much. Maybe he just feels safe behind it.) For the remainder of the first half of the show, they interspersed Beach Boys classics - "Sloop John B", "God Only Knows", "Dance, Dance, Dance", "Sail On Sailor", "Marcella" - with material from Wilson's forthcoming album. On any normal night, this set alone would have been one of the highlights of a year's concert going. Tonight though, it was acting as the hors d'oeuvre for a greater feast to come.

After the interval, we were straight into SMiLE. All would soon be revealed! Wilson and The Wondermints were joined by the eight strong Stockholm String 'n' Horns. SMiLE opens with the acapella "Our Prayer" then goes straight into an extended version of "Heroes and Villains" that bears little resemblance to the well-known single version, being even more of a montage of contrasting sections. To have assembled it from short, studio-recorded sections was an awesome task. To be able to play it note-perfect live is unbelievable. From then on, we are all swept along by the sheer majesty of what we are witnessing. Familiar melodies are interspersed with newer, more recently composed sections, but such trainspotting soon becomes irrelevant. SMiLE hangs together. It works! It truly is the great lost treasure it has always been proclaimed as. Even all these years later, it sounds fresh and dynamic. This is no trip down memory lane.

There is plenty of humour, drama, nostalgia, Americana throughout SMiLE , as well as a dazzling, kaleidoscopic array of sounds, instrumental and otherwise. It was conceived on a grand scale and lives up to that conception. The strings and horns are an integral part of it, from the raspberry blowing trombones to the cello choruses. In one surreal interlude, everyone plays tools for a while. Yes, tools - saws, hammers and the like. Brian Wilson played electric screwdriver. And there are chomping vegetables. And animal sounds. For "Fire" (the track that reputedly led Brian Wilson to finally abandon the SMiLE project after a series of fires in the neighbourhood of the recording studio) the string and horn players don fire-fighters' hats as at the original sessions. The track itself is a chaotic, tempestuous instrumental piece that may reveal some of Wilson's torment from the period. Again, one can barely imagine the emotions that playing it live must have stirred in him.

Three quarters of an hour flash by as we listen to all of this. Before we realise it, we are into the finale, a version of "Good Vibrations" ending in a powerful crescendo that acts as a suitably climactic end. As one, we the audience are on our feet, cheering all the performers to the echo, unable to fully convey to them our delight at what we have experienced. Of course, they return and play more. But this has been the heart of the show and everyone present has been affected by it, probably forever. Thirty-seven years is a long time, a long wait. After tonight, it has all been worthwhile. I truly hope that Brian Wilson agrees.

I don't really know why he came halfway across the world to do it, but thank God he did. Wonderful. Event of the year, and it's still only February. Maybe, event of the decade. Time will tell.

Sleep easy, Brian.

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