Thursday, November 20, 2008

Surprisingly Smashing, but only in Half

Concert Review
Smashing Pumpkins
November 19, 2008
Chicago Theatre

I have been a big Smashing Pumpkins fan for a long time and have seen them more live than any other artist except for Bruce Springsteen. And though I frequently find head Pumpkin Billy Corgan to be confounding, even maddening, I also think he is enormously talented—even underrated—as a songwriter and guitarist. So while I don’t know if I quite get or fully endorse how Billy and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain—minus the other two founding Pumpkins, plus seven additional musicians—can legitimately sell the notion of a reunited Smashing Pumpkins (Billy & Jimmy also were the core members of Zwan, which they created after the Pumpkins broke up in 2000), I like the music they used to create and even their recent output enough not to care too closely.

But while Billy can seemingly endlessly write enjoyable 4 minute songs, he, Jimmy and—likely without much say in the matter—their current hired hands also seem to have a great affinity for what I’ll call “sonic tornados.” Though they officially begin as songs, they really aren’t recognizable as such, nor are they really jams or solos, and singing is virtually non-existent. These sonic tornados can best be described as swirling blasts of music that go on for 10 minutes or more. Due to Billy & Jimmy’s formidable craftsmanship on their instruments, the tornados can be enjoyable in moderation and even phenomenal in spurts, but they now tend to take over at least half of a reconstituted Pumpkins show, last night being my 3rd since 2007.

And depending on one’s own comfort level at a given show, sitting through an hour or more of these sonic tornados can range from tolerable to tedious to interminable, especially if accompanied by angry rants from Corgan, as I read about happening at Tuesday night’s show. Given that, as well as the fact that when I saw the Pumpkins this past August in Hammond, IN and also last year at the Voodoo Music Experience in New Orleans they were only truly great for about 40 of 120+ minutes, I was somewhat leery about what I would discover at Wednesday night’s show (featuring a White Crosses setlist; the first night is Black Sunshine).

Well, what I found was that for the first 90 minutes, the Smashing Pumpkins (as they now exist) were excellent. Billy seemed relaxed and almost amiable, and even with a number of unfamiliar acoustic songs in the setlist, everything sounded good. Though especially for the harder tunes, like Cherub Rock, Zero and I of the Mourning, the sound could’ve been much louder. And while the 9-piece band was solid, all could have been replaced by machines for all the stage presence the brought to the show. Although Ginger Reyes did fill Billy’s requirement of always having an attractive female bassist to his right. And while not a huge loss, I did miss James Iha a bit; he used to add great guitar fills that went underappreciated.

Anyway, if after 90 minutes, the band played one more major hit and walked off-stage, it would’ve been a great show. But rather, after announcing that he had a cold, chatting aimlessly about the Cubs & White Sox (he's a Cubs fan) and doing a nice version of Disarm, Billy and the Pumpkins went on to play another 80 minutes, primarily filled with sonic tornados, any 10 minutes of which would’ve been fine, but in sum was way too much. The more they played, the more they diminished, rather than enhanced, what was shaping up as a triumphant performance.

Of course, just as I could not stay away from the Pumpkins as they played in Chicago for the first time since 2000, I am also going to see them on Friday night, the first night of a 2-night stand, still in Chicago, but at the Auditorium Theatre. I’ll get a completely different setlist than last night, and out of nearly 6 hours of music, I’ll theoretically will have seen 3 hours that were wonderful.

And then, after 15 Smashing Pumpkins shows and another 7 Corgan/Zwan performances, I think I can move on. But don't hold me to it.

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