Monday, October 17, 2011

Pumpkins Still Smashing But Only in Parts -- Concert Review: The Smashing Pumpkins

Photo Credit: Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune
Concert Review

The Smashing Pumpkins
with Light FM, Fancy Space People
Riviera Theatre, Chicago
October 14, 2011

In considering a Smashing Pumpkins concert at this stage in their career, it's easy to focus on what "they" no longer are.

As in, "they" no longer include 3/4 of the original band--with singer/songwriter/ guitarist Billy Corgan the only holdover--and they are precipitously shy of their peak mid-'90s popularity, when the Pumpkins were truly one of the world's biggest bands.

But although I have some mixed feelings about the current incarnation being called the Smashing Pumpkins, in truth the band name may have always been more of Corgan's alter ego (his Nine Inch Nails or LCD Soundsystem) than a unified group.

While the band, so to speak, once consisted of Corgan, guitarist James Iha, bassist D'arcy Wretzky and drummer James Chamberlain, on their breakthrough 1993 album, Siamese Dream, Billy played all the instruments except drums. When I first saw them at Lollapalooza '94, the band sounded rather loose and sloppy, and at their '96 peak, Chamberlain was ousted after a drug incident that left tour keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin dead.

The band would continue as a 3-piece, augmented by several musicians on their 1998 Adore tour, and by their 2000 farewell tour, Chamberlain was back but D'arcy was gone.

Since even in their heyday, the Pumpkins were often carved into various manifestations, it's somewhat hard to rue that the original band no longer exists. Chamberlain accompanied Corgan after the initial 2007 resurrection--with Iha and D'arcy seemingly wanting nothing more to do with the supposedly dictatorial head Pumpkin--but he split in 2009.

Now the so-called Smashing Pumpkins are Corgan and guitarist Jeff Schroeder, 21-year old drummer Mike Byrne and Nicole Fiorentino, the latest in a line of hot female bassists that Billy somehow manages to perpetually find and recruit.

And at the Riviera, on several great Pumpkins songs of yore, the new band still sounded smashing. Although not quite as powerful as Chamberlain, one of rock's best drummers, Byrne was rather impressive. And though I used to think Iha did a bit more onstage than Corgan probably gave him credit for--I liked the way his guitar fills danced around Corgan's 6-string roar--Schroeder seemed adequate and Fiorentino appeared to offer more than eye candy as she supplied bass licks and background vocals that sounded rather strong.

There are few bands, ever, whose sound I enjoy as much as the Smashing Pumpkins, and if Billy is able to fairly-well replicate it accompanied by trained monkeys, well, I'll probably be there cheering, playing air guitar and singing along. On great back catalog cuts like "Geek USA," "Muzzle," "Siva," "Cherub Rock" and "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," the thunderous melodies sounded sublime and any qualms about promotional legitimacy seemed rather pointless.

But though, in direct opposition to latter-day Pumpkins concerts in late 2008 and even in their heyday, Corgan avoided any ill-advised verbal harangues--in fact, he barely spoke to the hometown crowd at all--he still couldn't resist his tendency to deliver roughly half of a truly sensational show. Although Saturday's setlist looks pretty decent on paper, particularly to a pretty avid fan--I've seen the Smashing Pumpkins and other Corgan incarnations (Zwan, solo) over 20 times, more than any other act except Bruce Springsteen--there were still large portions of the show where the music meandered and dragged.

While I feel my @@@@ rating is about right, it's more based on the really good parts of the show deserving @@@@1/2 and the lesser sections only about @@@, rather than being solidly fulfilling throughout. Which serves to remind that even during their initial run, there were often portions of Pumpkins shows that left me scratching my head, while the great parts kept bringing me back for more.

At this point, my advice to Billy Corgan--not that I'd expect him to heed it--would be to start focusing on composing rock-based stage musicals (or even rock operas), something that clearly should be within his talent and comfort zones. And when he wants to play concerts, it should be as Billy Corgan, allowing him to mine not only the Pumpkins' glorious past, but also some of the stellar work he did with the short-lived Zwan, whose 2003 album is probably the best thing Billy has created in the last decade or so.

But as Saturday night proved, whatever brand of Pumpkins gets served up, I'll still be there, gloriously happy, at least for part of the night.

I should also mention that there were two opening bands, Light FM--of which current Pumpkins bassist Fiorentino is a former member and who were quite enjoyable--and Fancy Space People, which was one of the weirdest, most annoying bands I've ever seen (all the members wore space outfits). And as part of the Pumpkins' encore, Billy reunited the members of a band named Catherine, who he explained used to share rehearsal space with his band. I've never heard of them, so it didn't mean much to me, but the two songs they played sounded decent enough. Sure, I would rather have heard "Zero" and "Tonight, Tonight" but the Pumpkins weren't going to play them anyhow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did he get booed off stage at '94 in the Gorge? I remember him saying things like "I want to start a fire with all your flannels and burn down sub-pop" then trying to smash a guitar and getting carried offstage by a roadie.