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Wilson's 'Smile' well worth the wait

The standing ovations came early and often. The audience was enraptured -- and emotionally swept away -- by Brian Wilson's local debut of his long-scrapped "Smile" album last night at the Orpheum. By the end, Wilson could have walked on water and it would have seemed entirely appropriate.

Wilson deserves endless credit for reviving his 37-year-old "Smile" sessions, which his bandmates in the Beach Boys didn't feel comfortable singing at the time of their creation. The songs are still a puzzle -- full of fairy-tale imagery, lyrical riddles, and obvious drug inspirations from the era -- but they added up to an enchanting night of music last night, as a backup band of up to 17 players, including the Stockholm Strings and Horns, applied dextrous touches to a wildly untamed and childlike musical fusion.

The orchestral sound effects were imaginative to the point of hilarity, as the musicians used everything from a bullhorn, vibes, and kazoo, to carrots and broccoli that were shaken percussively during the wonderfully daffy "Vega-Tables." And they donned fire helmets and passed around a fire hose during the instrumental "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," which also featured red emergency lights flashing through the not-quite-sold-out house.

Wilson sat somewhat stoically at a keyboard in front of the stage and read lyrics from a teleprompter. But he sang better than he has on any of his other comeback tours. He was clearly inspired to perform "Smile," which comprised his second set last night. That followed a first set of some solo material and Beach Boys standards, including "Sloop John B," "California Girls," and "God Only Knows," which Wilson said was Paul McCartney's favorite Beach Boys tune. Some songs were performed in an unplugged format that emphasized what a debt Wilson owed to such forerunning vocal groups as the Four Freshmen.

But the crowd, which numbered many musicians from around town (Al Kooper, Barrence Whitfield, and Greg Hawkes of the Cars were among those spotted), saved its most reverence for "Smile," which Wilson has said was his attempt to write a "teenage symphony to God." It's also a musical travelogue with references from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii, and genres that run from Old World classical chorales to fractured, late '60s psychedelic rock experiments. Wilson hit emotional peaks on "Heroes and Villains" and "Child is Father of the Man," before ending the "Smile" segment triumphantly with "Good Vibrations," sparking the most prolonged standing ovation of the night.

His band featured such noble disciples as singer/guitarist Jeff Foskett (who confessed he was not feeling well), singer Taylor Mills (who filled a number of Foskett's parts for him), and percussionist Nelson Bragg Jr., son of a famed Boston radio personality.

Once "Smile" was out of the way, Wilson & Co. returned for more Beach Boys hits (from "Help Me, Rhonda" to "Barbara Ann"), finishing this mostly upbeat, emotionally resonant night in style.

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