Saturday, October 28, 2017

"Take Me As I Am": William Patrick Corgan Shares a Satisfying Night of Song, For Those in the Billy Club -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Billy Corgan
Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago
October 25, 2017 (also played 10/24)

We all have people in our life who repeatedly exasperate us, yet we love them anyway.

And such is our innate fondness that no matter how many times they may show up late or drink too much or ignore our texts or whatever, we still welcome the next opportunity to see them.

Perhaps with a pang of wariness, but more so warm anticipation.

Without any suggestion that I know--nor am judging--him on a personal level, as a musical performer this is what Billy Corgan represents for me.

The suburban Chicago native--who has released a new album, Ogilala, and promoted a corresponding solo tour using his full name, William Patrick Corgan--has written, created and sung some of my favorite music ever, largely-but-not-just with the original incarnation of The Smashing Pumpkins.

Few songs have resonated with me--sonically, lyrically, spiritually--more than Pumpkins gems like "Cherub Rock," "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "I Am One," "Today," "Zero," "Muzzle" and many others, and hearing them live with Corgan blistering on guitar and vocals is essentially nirvana, if not Nirvana.

Though somehow, while I was living in LA from 1990-92, the Smashing Pumpkins and their debut album, Gish, didn't hit my radar--and I well-knew International Pop Overthrow from Chicago's Material Issue--I have followed Corgan ever since 1993's Siamese Dream.

Including with the Pumpkins in various incarnations--before the 2000 breakup of the original quartet (I won't detail the lineup changes even amid the first go-round) and employing many musicians since a 2007 "reunion"--as well as with the stellar but short-lived Zwan and on his own, I have now seen Billy Corgan live onstage 28 times.

This is far more than anyone I've seen except for Bruce Springsteen (49x).

With appreciation for a prolificness that resulted in dozens of fine songs beyond those that made the official albums--"Let Me Give the World to You" being a prime example--to bringing new sounds to alternative rock, including more significant use of piano than you can cite from his contemporaries, I genuinely consider Corgan a songwriting genius.

Yet from puzzling career decisions to head-scratching interview statements, Corgan has long been enigmatic, and while this has never stopped me from attending shows, all too many have been marred by perplexing setlist choices, verbal harangues, incessant feedback loops and other distractions that have detracted from the brilliance of his best music. (Note my reviews of Smashing Pumpkins shows from 2016, 2015, 20122011 and 2008 for a familiar undercurrent; also of Corgan solo at Ravinia in 2014.)

I believe Billy has often been his own worst enemy, and that at least the second of two homecoming shows at the rather intimate Athenaeum Theatre was well short of sold out bespeaks that even in Chicago his legacy lags well behind those of Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl, etc., though musically it shouldn't.

It's also not lost on me that other contemporaries--Kurt Cobain, Jim Ellison, Layne Staley, Scott Weiland, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington and more--have passed on, either long ago or rather recently, and whatever pause he may provide, I'm grateful that Corgan is still plugging away.

So even with tickets for the Athenaeum rather pricey at $75 + fees, I eagerly bought a pair for me and my pal Paolo as soon as they went on sale.

And I'll stipulate that I knew--if not in full instantly, but well before attending--that this would be a solo acoustic show, heavy on Ogilala and typically sparse on Pumpkins greatest hits.

Setlists from a recent pair of New York shows also informed that this "Night 2" gig wouldn't repeat the non-Ogilala material of Night 1, which included "Muzzle" amd "Tonight, Tonight."

But of all the Corgan/Pumpkins shows I've seen over just the past decade, my favorite had been at Ravinia in 2014, when--largely solo and/or acoustic--Billy surveyed his vast oeuvre, famous and less so, including some beautiful takes featuring him playing grand piano.

This show--you can see the Wednesday Athenaeum setlist here--was somewhat similar, if not quite as ravishing.

Corgan began by playing the 11 songs on Ogilala straight through.

The rather low-key album--i.e. no loud electric guitars or drums--is only a couple weeks old, so still pretty new to me, but I had come to know it holds some really fine material.

That my favorite songs from it at this point are the first four--"Zowie," "Processional," "The Spaniards" and lead single "Aeronaut"--made for a nice start to the concert.

On "The Spaniards," I couldn't help note the lyric, "Take me as I am" as rather apt, and the piano-based "Aeronaut" was sublime.

Hearing the rest of the album was also pleasant enough--the closing two songs, "Shiloh" and "Archer" are also highlights--but Paolo made a good point in asking how much it would've ensnared us if Corgan wasn't famous.

i.e. Were these songs that much better than an unknown act might perform at some random club?

While I don't think Corgan's songcraft throughout the album matches his best material, I remain convinced that there are few rock artists so deft at creating glistening piano melodies, including on several of the new songs.

Corgan took a 20-minute break after following Ogilala with a cover of Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter," but wound up playing a generous 2 hours of music to an appreciative crowd.

If you weren't used to Billy's proclivities--or his setlists on this tour--his beginning the "classic" portion of the evening with the 9-minute "Oceania" from the 2012 Smashing Pumpkins album of the same name might have further tested your patience after the new album in full.

And while I've come to accept--and even appreciate--Billy's conviction to his own vision, I think it worth asking if those spending over $80 can fairly expect a bit more low-hanging fruit.

For as much as I enjoyed what Billy did with lesser-known Pumpkins tunes like "Try, Try, Try," "La Dolly Vita," "To Sheila," a few bigger ones like "Thirty-Three," "Disarm," "Eye," "1979" and "Today," covers of "After the Gold Rush" (Neil Young) and "Wrecking Ball" (Miley Cyrus) and some cuts so deep I didn't recognize them--including Zwan's "Friends as Lovers, Lovers as Friends"--I would still call this a satisfying, even excellent concert, but not quite a spectacular one.

And while I appreciate that Billy was on his best behavior, barely saying more than an occasional "thanks" and tolerating idiots yelling out song titles--including a silly "Do a Tom Petty tribute!"--I actually would have valued him speaking a bit more.

Just a brief comment he made about realizing, while playing "Thirty Three," that a lyrical reference to a church steeple in that song was about the one atop St. Alphonsus adjacent to the Athenaeum, prompted Paolo and I to thirst for a few more lyrical insights, local recollections or career anecdotes.

I'm not sure if it was an audible derived from the requests he was being pelted with, but late in the show Corgan pulled out a song called "Chicago" for seemingly just the second time ever in concert (first was at the Ravinia show). You can find it here on YouTube, but in his tribute to the Windy City, there's a lyric that goes:

"It's in the things that you want me to say"

But I swear, on Wednesday night, Billy sang it as:

"It's in the songs you want me to play"

I don't think it's right to yell anything at a performer; rather, listen to what he wants to play. Truth is, he delivered a show I found highly enjoyable.

Yet from a critical standpoint, I also think entertainers should give credence to the reality that any audience is comprised of hardcore fans--perhaps seeing them for the 28th time, armed with the benefit of and Spotify--and much more casual ones.

That the latter may well have only recognized about five Corgan-penned songs out of 29 total selections doesn't mean that most everything else wasn't well-performed.

But while I give Billy props for foraging his estimable past--and present--and continuing to challenge audiences at some cost to his popularity, I honestly believe a bit more accessibility would be beneficial. 

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