New Vibrations

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    When he's motivated, Wilson continues to have a firm grasp on his music. A few days after the interview, during a sound check for the second stop on the tour (a virtually sold-out theater just outside Chicago), Thomas seems to be running things. But Wilson is unhappy with a run-through of Kiss Me, Baby, a classic Beach Boys tune. Somewhere in the middle of a complex arrangement featuring nine vocalists, he has detected someone singing flat. He asks to run through the song again and then abruptly calls a halt after maybe half a bar. He has identified the culprit, and quickly reworks the harmony to his satisfaction. This is the same in-command Brian you can hear at work on the Pet Sounds outtakes--pop's boy genius.

    Musically, the show has been cannily put together. The eclectic 13-piece band includes both aging studio veterans and younger members of alternative-rock groups (Wondermints, Poi Dog Pondering) who worship at the altar of Wilson's bittersweet harmonies and who give Wilson's live sound more bite and elasticity than one might have expected. The complex arrangements, with so many interlocking voices, have the added benefit of cushioning Wilson's sometimes ragged but still expressive voice (by way of analogy, if not quite equivalence, think late Billie Holiday).

    Not that Wilson needs all the support, as it turns out. Although he starts the show a little stiffly, sitting behind a keyboard he only pretends to play and, on occasion, seeming to drop out of the vocal mix altogether, he soon warms to the adoring crowd, tearing into his vocals on the up-tempo numbers, connecting to both the music and the audience. As the evening progresses, he grows comfortable enough to begin joking and ad-libbing between songs, revealing a sweet, almost childlike directness. Introducing his first encore, one of the great ballads from Pet Sounds, he says, "Back in the early '60s I used to sing like a girl, and here's a song I sang called Caroline, No." Earlier he had been getting aid (if not outright ghost-singing) on some of his songs' famous falsetto passages, but here he nails the high notes perfectly.

    Backstage, he's exultant. Like a winning prizefighter, he poses for pictures, accepts kudos, gives interviews. Like himself, he breaks into The Star-Spangled Banner for no apparent reason. People who know Wilson say they've rarely seen him this up, this animated. "These concerts aren't going to go down in history," he says, "but what I want to do is play for people and make people happy. That's all I want." This night he got it. You'd have to be emotionally inert not to be happy for him in turn.

    "I've been getting pretty relaxed with the music. I think I'll do a good job."

    "What I want to do is play for people and make people happy."

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