NEW YORK — Much like the musical output of the great California composer it celebrated, "An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson," which convened Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall, ranged from the sublime to the slightly ridiculous.
It began with the Boys Choir of Harlem singing the angelic "Our Prayer," the self-characterized "teenage symphony to God" that Wilson composed for the Beach Boys' legendary unfinished mid-'60s album, Smile. It wound down nearly three and a half hours later with the surreal spectacle of Elton John, Billy Joel, Paul Simon and a pantheon of former chart toppers twisting and tambourine banging to "Fun, Fun, Fun" (RealAudio excerpt of Beach Boys version)
and "Surfin' USA" (RealAudio excerpt of Beach Boys version)
on either side of a forlorn-appearing Wilson.
Other artists on hand to salute Wilson's quintessential American combination of sophisticated musicianship and arrested adolescence included David Crosby, the Go-Go's, Heart, Vince Gill, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, Hootie and the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker, Carly Simon, Matthew Sweet, Jimmy Webb and Wilson Phillips (featuring Wilson's daughters Carnie and Wendy, and performing together for the first time in a decade).
Produced as a TNT television special to be aired on July 4 — the network has produced similar tributes to Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell — the concert was hosted by Bronx-raised actor Chazz Palminteri and, with its location and local performers, had a counterintuitive East Coast slant. It even threatened to go more Vegas then Cali early on when Ricky Martin — following Paul Simon's solo acoustic version of Wilson's first tune, "Surfer Girl" (RealAudio excerpt of Beach Boys version)
— bumped and ground through "California Girls" (RealAudio excerpt of Beach Boys version)
and "Help Me, Rhonda" (RealAudio excerpt of Beach Boys version)
The first half of the tribute was devoted to a roundup of Wilson-penned Beach Boys hits, the second to a frequently gorgeous recreation of Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys' 1966 pop masterpiece, which Wilson wrote with lyricist Tony Asher. There were equipment changes between virtually all of the evening's three dozen songs, making it hard for any momentum to build in either section. Documentary interludes were introduced by Beatles producer George Martin, filmmaker Cameron Crowe and actor Dennis Hopper).
Wilson was lauded early in the night as the artistic equal of George Gershwin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach, and later characterized by Hopper as "truly the ultimate heroic survivor." He then took the stage to perform a note-perfect version of what is arguably his most fully realized creation, "Heroes and Villains" (RealAudio excerpt of Beach Boys version)
a Smile song that eventually showed up on the Beach Boys album Smiley Smile. (The song's co-writer, Van Dyke Parks, was in the audience but should have been onstage.)
Wilson, like the other artists, was accompanied by a 10-piece band that provided sometimes overwhelming yet eerily accurate recreations of the helium harmonies and inventive arrangements Wilson created for the Beach Boys.
He displayed little emotion amid magnificent hall-filling arrangements augmented by the Radio City Orchestra and Harlem Boys Choir. With his awkward hand movements and thousand-yard Teleprompter stare, the Beach Boys' mastermind resembled a middle-aged version of the countless frightened teenage boys comforted by his loners' anthems.
Few artists apart from Simon felt the need to add their own spin to Wilson's magic. Before banging out the 1964 single "Don't Worry Baby" (RealAudio excerpt of Beach Boys version)
Billy Joel recalled opening for the Beach Boys for two years. Heart and the Boys Choir brought the house down with a larger-than-life "Good Vibrations" (RealAudio excerpt of Beach Boys version).
The Go-Go's transformed "Surf City" into a town boasting "two boys for every girl." Crosby's take (or takes, since he flubbed the lyrics his first time around) on "Sloop John B" (RealAudio excerpt of Beach Boys version)
recalled not the Beach Boys' pop version but the Kingston Trio's folk version, which came first. Vince Gill offered a luxurious interpretation of "The Warmth of the Sun" (RealAudio excerpt of Beach Boys version), the Beach Boys' sentimental response to John F. Kennedy's assassination.