Sunday, April 17, 2016

A-Ha, It's Iha: Smashing Pumpkins Show Has Great Moments, Fails to Leverage Best One -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Smashing Pumpkins
w/ opening act Liz Phair
Civic Opera House, Chicago
April 14, 2016
@@@@ (for both acts)

I've guess I've come to accept, if not always acutely in the moment, that if a Smashing Pumpkins show doesn't leave me scratching my head, it probably wasn't a Smashing Pumpkins show. 

Which isn't to imply that I don't like the Pumpkins, haven't been glad to attend each concert I did and don't have tremendous regard for the vast talents of Chief Pumpkinhead, Billy Corgan. 

I have loved the music of the Smashing Pumpkins since coming to hear Siamese Dream soon after its 1993 release. (Though I remain puzzled as to why I remained oblivious to 1991's Gish while living in L.A. from 1990-92, especially as I was smitten by another band breaking out of Chicago around the same time, Material Issue.)

But I still recall having seen a big Chicago Tribune article in 1993 heralding it as a huge year in Chicago rock 'n roll, with the release (and subsequent success) of Siamese Dream, Saturation by Urge Overkill and Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair, another longtime favorite of mine who I was excited to see opening Thursday's show at the Opera House.

I thought Phair looked and sounded great as she comfortably--she once had notorious stage fright--ran through 11 tunes solo, mainly with an acoustic guitar.

These included several early gems ("Johnny Feelgood," "Fuck and Run," "Stratford-on-Guy," "Never Said," "Divorce Song,"), a pair of singles from her critically-derided-as-too-poppish self-titled 2003 album ("Extraordinary" and "Why Can't I," both of which sounded good here) and a new song she noted was about Chicago, "Our Dog Days Behind Us." (See the full setlist here.)

Phair, who grew up in Winnetka, noted her parents were in the audience and that as they had taken her to the opera house in her youth, it was a particular thrill to perform on its stage.

Understandably, the home of Chicago's renowned Lyric Opera was also an acoustically pristine place to see the Smashing Pumpkins, whose performance was promoted as being a more musically low-volume affair than their fully electric sets.

So I wasn't bothered in the least when Corgan took the stage alone for a few songs done on an acoustic guitar, including a sumptuous "Tonight, Tonight" from 1995's massive Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and a nice solo composition, "The World's Fair."

I nearly cried when, accompanied by current Pumpkins guitarist Jeff Schroeder, Corgan delivered David Bowie's "Space Oddity," especially as I believe the two were good friends, with Corgan featuring prominently into Bowie's 50th Birthday Concert in 1997.

Phair sang with Corgan and Schroeder on "Thirty-Three," with the latter two then performing a pair recorded under the Zwan moniker, "Jesus I / Mary Star of the Sea."

While many in the opera house crowd were seemingly unable to sit silently and appreciate the unplugged renditions--some shouting inanities at Corgan, others getting in fights, a group behind me chattering throughout every song--I thought it was quite lovely, and was reminded of Corgan's stellar performance at Ravinia a couple summers ago.

Knowing that original Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain is playing with the band on this In Plainsong tour, and having perused the mostly static setlists from recent shows, I expected things would soon rock at least a bit harder.

But though I wondered if he might after doing so recently in Los Angeles, I was delightfully surprised when original Pumpkins guitarist James Iha joined the band for a suite of songs from Siamese Dream.

With 3/4 of the original Smashing Pumpkins (sans bassist D'arcy Wretzky) onstage in Chicago for the first time since their "breakup" show in December 2000, after years of purported acrimony, this was--especially for us locals--something akin to the Axl/Slash/Duff (but not Izzy or Adler) Guns 'n Roses reunion.

Starting with "Mayonaise" (see video below), this was a truly blissful concertgoing moment, with Chamberlain, Schoeder and touring Pumpkins Sierra Swan and Katie Cole joining Corgan and Iha in various combinations on "Soma," "Today" and more, before the pair played "Disarm" with Billy on keys.

But with Iha then leaving the stage without any acknowledgement from Corgan, this is where the head scratching began (on this evening; search this blog for "Smashing Pumpkins" to find variations on a theme from recent years).

Let me first note here that the origins of the Smashing Pumpkins date to mid-1988 when Corgan and Iha met at a Chicago area used record store (where both, or perhaps just Corgan, were working) and started playing together musically.

Wretzky and Chamberlain would soon join them, and Gish, stardom with Siamese Dream and superstardom with Mellon Collie... would follow. But substance abuse issues--and the death of touring musician Jonathan Melvoin in 1996--would force Chamberlain out of the band, and when he returned for the Machina/The Machines of God tour in 2000, D'arcy Wretzky had left. (The original 4 did play a brief tour in 1999 that I attended in Detroit, the only time besides Lollapalooza 1994 that I saw the fully unsmashed Pumpkins; overall I've now seen them 27 times, if one includes 5 shows under the Zwan name and 3 solo Corgan gigs.)

So during the initial 1988-2000 run of the Smashing Pumpkins, through which they became--for awhile--one of the biggest rock bands in the world, the one guy always standing at Corgan's side, literally, was James Iha.

It certainly seems likely that dissension between the two, perhaps stemming from Corgan openly stating that he played all the guitar & bass parts on Gish and Siamese Dream, is what initially ended the Smashing Pumpkins, but publicly or privately Corgan has seemingly tried to make amends with Iha for at least the past several years.

And now he does, with Iha probably flying in from L.A. or wherever he now lives, and what does Billy do?

Well, after introducing James to hearty applause, and dueting on the sublime "Mayonaise," he brought Schroeder onstage to play alongside Iha on the Siamese Dream material, with the current Pumpkins guitarist playing electric and taking the solos while Iha stayed on acoustic.

Iha then leaves the stage without a word, and Corgan & Co. proceed to play the exact same material that they have in Boston, Toronto, Nashville, etc.

This includes Corgan's own "Sorrows (In Blue)," "Identify" (which he wrote for Natalie Imbruglia), Hole's "Malibu" with Katie Cole on vocals (he co-wrote it with Courtney Love), a new song called "The Spaniards" to close the 24-song main set and, as the sole encore, an unremarkable cover of the Rolling Stones' "Angie" with Iha back onstage. (Was this last choice also a sly tribute to Bowie, as the song was penned for his wife?)

Only "1979" and to a lesser extent "Stand Inside Your Love" really seemed to delight the crowd--or at least me--following the Siamese Dream suite.

Odd setlist choices are just one way Corgan has confounded me over the years, with long angry harangues, endless feedback wails and egregious interview quotes being among the other avenues he has taken to antagonize his fans and undermine his musical genius.

Some might argue, including perhaps Billy, that he is challenging his fans rather than placating them merely with greatest hits, and as I obviously can't stay away, it's possible there is something to this.

Yet while I would suggest that he had already challenged the audience a good bit with the largely acoustic first third of the show, and the final third might have felt excessively esoteric on any night, on the rare occasion of Iha finally playing with him again--and it doesn't appear that he has in the two shows now subsequent to Chicago--why couldn't Billy have let James remain in the spotlight and, with Chamberlain, rip through "Cherub Rock," "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" or even if staying in a lower-key vein, "Perfect," for old times sake?

Even at the end of the concert, after introducing all the band members including Iha, Billy Corgan stayed onstage to soak in the applause alone after everyone else walked off.

Now this is only my supposition; I've read and heard a good deal about the Smashing Pumpkins over the years, but don't purport any of this as gospel. But to my eyes, it would seem James Iha (and perhaps D'arcy) got so sick of Billy Corgan's egomaniacal, control freak ways--and being in his shadow--that he gave up millions to leave the band and not return until, briefly, now.

So Iha accepts Corgan's peace offerings, and at their hometown show, he's again relegated to being in Billy's shadow.

This should have been a night to celebrate--for my tastes--the best rock band ever to emerge from Chicago.

I don't care if Corgan always did most of the writing and singing--and I own, and largely love, nearly all of it--the truth is that to see three of the original Pumpkins onstage together was a very big deal.

But instead of seizing the moment and making a night featuring plenty of excellent music feel truly transcendent, Billy Corgan felt it more necessary to stick to the script and remind us that he wrote "Identify" and "Malibu" and end the night with a Rolling Stones cover.

This wasn't a bad show; in fact in large part, it was a very good one. It just seemed like the Smashing Pumpkins' fans, legacy and even one of its founding members deserved better.

Here's a clip of Billy Corgan and James Iha playing "Mayonaise," as posted to YouTube by Nicolás Blanco:

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