Monday, September 01, 2014

It's the Great Pumpkin, as Billy Corgan Delivers a (Mostly) Smashing Showcase at Ravinia -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Billy Corgan
w/ opening act Katie Cole
Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL
August 30, 2014
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I first saw the Smashing Pumpkins 20 years ago, as the headliners--originally slated to be Nirvana--of Lollapalooza 1994, the only traveling version of the fest I ever attended. (I should have gone in 1993 when I got tickets for a co-worker friend to see the Pumpkins at the Aragon, but I abstained.)

At that point, the band consisted of singer/songwriter/guitarist Billy Corgan, guitarist James Iha, bassist D'arcy Wretzky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain.

You can refer to Wikipedia for the breakdown of how the Pumpkins' personnel changed over the years, but Corgan has always been the main creative force and most defining element. With no disrespect to any of the other members, past or present, for better or worse Billy Corgan basically is the Smashing Pumpkins. Perhaps more akin to how Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails than analogous to most "bands."

After Saturday night, I have now seen Corgan in concert 25 times, whether fronting the Smashing Pumpkins of various incarnations, leading a short-lived band called Zwan that followed the 2000 breakup of the "original" Pumpkins or billed under his own name, as he was at Ravinia.

Emphatically, I enjoy the Smashing Pumpkins' music, at its best and best-known, but even a good bit deeper, as beyond the official albums the ├╝ber-prolific Corgan has literally released hundreds of additional songs via online albums, outtake collections, deluxe versions, etc.--and I've paid a fair amount of attention, even in recent years.

But the truth is that there is far too much "Smashing Pumpkins" material out there than I will ever be able to digest, and by-and-large what I like most is the premier material released on their main albums from 1991-2000.

Not "just the hits," but also the hits, not apologetically.

In concert, Corgan and "the Pumpkins" have always been a mixed bag, usually for maddening reasons caused by Corgan's seeming inability to stay on the right side of the line between "challenging the audience" and vexing them. (Similarly, in likely trying to be analytical and introspective in interviews, he's too often come off as insufferable.)

When Corgan blazes away on his electric guitar and rages through songs like "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "I Am One," "Cherub Rock," "Zero" and others, there are few sounds that have ever been more pleasing to my ears.

And I have seen some glorious shows that I'll never forget, from a packed Rosemont Horizon amidst a 3-night stand at the heights of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness fame in 1996 to a small club show in Detroit in April 1999 that was among the last to include the 4 original members (after Jimmy Chamberlain returned from a drug-related ousting, and before D'arcy would depart) to "near-the-end, part I" arena shows in late 2000 in both Paris and Chicago.

Such is my regard for the sounds Corgan can make--especially in tandem with Chamberlain--that the initial Zwan shows at the Double Door in April 2002 are still among the most exciting of any in memory, as they debuted great songs that almost no one had previously heard. (The sole Zwan album, Mary Star of the Sea, is rather stellar.)

But all too many shows that Corgan has fronted have balanced ecstasy with agony, or something approaching it, whether due to challenging setlists that went well-beyond esoteric, lengthy diatribes in which Billy would berate or just bore the audience, 15-minute feedback wails that took the place of 4 good songs and assorted other WTF? antics.

I felt the need to explain this leading into a review of the Ravinia show, because while I like a lot of Corgan's music a whole lot, and truly do admire him, I have left far too many of his concerts far more perplexed that I would have liked.

Saturday night I didn't.

While his 28-song setlist--sans the VIP songs I wasn't there for--included only 8-1/2 of the 20 tunes I suggested in my "Dream Setlist" submission (see my previous blog post; the "1/2" is because he played "Tonight Tonight" rather than the "Tonight Reprise"), most of the 150 minutes Corgan spent on stage were acutely entertaining, many even mesmerizing.

Even though there were a fair number songs that I didn't know, none sounded bad and only a few were real head-scratchers. And Corgan's stage patter was gracious and polite, at times even affable, and included no lengthy harangues.

But it's not as though I'm grading on a curve just because Billy was on "good behavior" and seemingly determined to be somewhat "crowd-pleasing" at one of the sparser Ravinia gatherings I've ever seen. (I got pavilion ticket for half-price on Goldstar just days prior.)

Dressed in a black suit, Billy took the stage, alone, a little after 8:00, following a pleasing 1/2 hour set by an Australian singer with quasi-country stylings named Katie Cole.

Opening at the grand piano, Corgan started the night with a song called "Chicago," written about a decade ago for a never-released project and never performed until a recent WGN-TV news concert preview

So though this was, for most, an unknown song, it was a lovely way to begin--especially on piano, as he'd used a guitar on WGN.

"Today" and "Disarm," two well-known MTV hits from 1993's Siamese Dream, followed, showing that the enigmatic star wasn't intending to be completely obscure in his selections, even if I was clueless on his next two songs (per setlists: "Lonely is the Name," "As Time Draws Near").

Both of the latter sounded like quality tunes and especially after Corgan was joined by current Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schoeder for a fine take on a Zwan song called "For Your Love"--and for the rest of the night--even the more arcane material was always well-played.

I relished hearing "Let Me Give My the World to You"--an Adore outtake also on the Machina II online album--for the first time live. It reiterated that among Corgan's vast trove of relatively buried treasures are some really great songs; if released at the height of Pumpkinmania, "Let Me Give..." could have been a huge hit. (video snippet below)

Though at their apex the Pumpkins filled much larger places, Corgan--who lives in a Highland Park mansion and runs the  nearby Madame Zuzu's tea shop--seemed genuinely proud and respectful of playing Ravinia for the first time.

Early in the show a fan in the pavilion yelled, "Let's go, White Sox!" at the well-known Cubs fanatic.

To which Corgan wryly lamented, "On my special night," and then went on to tell Schroeder--who he introduced as not a baseball fan but a hockey fan...of the L.A. Kings--that the Cubs were something like 0-100 this year.

Later, as Billy again sat at his grand piano in the middle of the show, another dick screamed out, "Freebird!"

"There's that White Sox fan again," Billy retorted in perfectly smashing fashion before playing a gorgeous version of "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," the piano interlude to the double album of the same name.

That would begin an 8-song Mellon Collie section that would include several of the show's true highlights.

"To Forgive" and especially "Muzzle," played on piano and delicately sung by Billy, were sublime, "Tonight Tonight" with Corgan and Schroeder on side-by-side acoustics was a delight and it was cool to hear album tracks like "Galapagos" and "Thirty-Three" alongside a hit like "1979."

Billy also introduced a song called "Methusela" that he wrote about his father during the Mellon Collie period, but had never even played for his bandmates or producers.

It sounded good, and I imagine it was the tune that had avowed archivist Pumpkinheads most excited.

Warmly accepting a long and luscious standing ovation shortly earlier, Corgan demurred that "You haven't heard the second half of the show yet."

And, though it never devolved into rants or even discordance, the show's denouement was rather abstruse. Look at the end of the setlist to see what I mean without my naming every song, but after drummer Matt Walker--who played with the Smashing Pumpkins during Chamberlain's exile--joined Corgan and Schroeder for a fine, relatively uptempo version of "Ava Adore," the specter of a brief full-force gale turned out to be a mirage.

With a trio of backup singers he introduced as members of the Ex-Cops--a band he's been working with--Billy opted to end his main set with three obscurities out of four ("Stand Inside Your Love" being the exception.)

And lest anyone think he might hit up "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "Zero," "Mayonaise" or "Drown" to mollify the masses--although I didn't mind the mysterious selections too much up close in the pavilion, I can only imagine how the rarities were going over on Ravinia's can't-see-the-stage lawn section--Corgan opened the encores by creating about 5 minutes worth of ambient beats leading into a song called "The World's Fair," whose title I known only in seeing it listed afterward.

And for the grand finale of this unique night--which I truly did largely and greatly enjoy--Billy brought onstage the roster of the Resistance Pro Wrestling organization that he runs and let the crowd know that there is an event coming up in Chicago on Sept. 12.

Billy's brother Jesse was also onstage, but rather than play Siamese Dream's "Spaceboy," which was written about him, or send the "low hanging fruit" fans (like me) deliriously into the night with "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "Cherub Rock" or the like--drummer Walker was still onstage--we got a Zwan song called "Of a Broken Heart."

While I found some of the later choices a bit odd, I actually admire Billy Corgan for remaining true to his iconoclastic self, especially as his stage presence throughout was cordial and never irritating.

And even if about a third of the 150-minute show contained material I never would have voted for, not only was little of it truly off-putting, but if you had told me going in that I would hear 100 minutes of mostly terrific, sometimes transcendent music from the progenitor of one of my all-time favorite bands, I would have been happy.

Thus I was.

It wasn't quite perfect nor as entirely gratifying as other low-key, mostly acoustic showcases I've seen this year from the likes of Neil Young and Elvis Costello. And I imagine Billy's set was far too arcane for some and perhaps too populist for others.

But for the most part, on this night, for me, the Great Pumpkin really did appear.

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Here are a few videos I shot, although the first two are snippets, not full songs.

"Let Me Give the World to You"

"Muzzle"

"Tonight Tonight"

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