Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Despite All My Rage: A Long, Strong Night as the Mostly Reunited, Musically Smashing Pumpkins "Bullet" Back to "Zero" -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Smashing Pumpkins
w/ opening act Metric
August 13, 2018 (also played 8/14)
United Center, Chicago

On 20 different evenings dating back to 1994--I now wish I had gone in 1993 when I had the chance--I have seen and heard a rock band calling themselves the Smashing Pumpkins.

I put it that way because the only real constant across all those shows has been head Pumpkin, Billy Corgan, the band's singer, songwriter, lead guitarist and visionary. 

I have heard some, including Corgan, suggest that he really is the Smashing Pumpkins, and in terms of "the band" essentially representing his creative vision in a way analogous to Nine Inch Nails representing that of Trent Reznor, I can't really disagree. 

But whereas NIN beyond Reznor was always more anonymous and/or rotating, during the Pumpkins' rise to fame around roughly the same time (1991-96), Corgan's bandmates were fairly well known to be bassist D'arcy Wretzky, guitaritst James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain.

Opening act, Metric
Stories surrounding Smashing Pumpkins' blockbuster second album, 1993's Siamese Dream, suggested Corgan played all the parts except Chamberlain's, but amid almost-exclusively white and male alt-rock contemporaries like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Green Day, the band's diversity was a unique and important part of its identity. 

The blonde, ethereally attractive Wretzky may not have been the world's greatest bass player, but she definitely made the Pumpkins seem a good bit cooler, especially as alternative rock overtook MTV. 

But having passed on the chance to see the Pumpkins in 1993 at the Aragon, I and presumably many who didn't much know or care about 1991's Gish--I was living in L.A. at the time of its release, and although into Nirvana and Pearl Jam almost from the get-go, as well as Chicago's Material Issue, I was oblivious to the Smashing Pumpkins until Siamese Dream, when I was back in Chicago--Lollapalooza 1994 was really my only opportunity to see the original quartet. (The Pumpkins headlined the traveling tour after the demise of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana; I really only went because a friend's brother-in-law had an extra ticket.)

Original Pumpkins bassist D'arcy Wretzky wasn't on hand,
but near doppelgangers featured prominently in backdrop imagery
Upon the late 1995 release of the fantastic double-album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, I was a huge Pumpkins fan--and they arguably had become the "biggest band in the world"--but by the time that tour reached Chicago the following October, Chamberlain had been booted due to a drug incident in New York in which touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died. 

1998's Adore tour saw Corgan, Iha and Wretzky accompanied by numerous touring musicians.

But the shopping mall crowd who identified with Corgan's tales of suburban ennui can be a fickle bunch, and the Smashing Pumpkins' moment in history had already begun to ebb. 

A jaunt up to Detroit in April 1999 enabled me to see a club show once again featuring the original quartet, but Wretzky was soon ousted and replaced by Melissa Auf der Maur, who I would see across seven shows before the Smashing Pumpkins' initial run ended in December 2000.

Truly appreciating Corgan as a songwriting genius, I would follow him (and Chamberlain) through Zwan, and both before and after he resurrected the Smashing Pumpkins moniker in 2007, have also seen a handful of solo shows. Plus eight additional latter-day "Pumpkins" shows--with various lineups, some including Chamberlain--prior to Monday's Shiny and Oh So Bright "reunion tour" show at the United Center. 

Chamberlain is one of the best drummers I've ever seen, and I've always appreciated what Iha's guitar brought to the band's live sound, so I'm glad they're back in what currently constitutes the Smashing Pumpkins. 

While after years away from music, with a drug arrest several years ago, Wretzky likely made Corgan dubious about her ability to play and tour, I really wish she too was back in the fold. 

If she's healthy and well enough to play bass, or even just appear onstage, it theoretically would have been cooler and more compelling if she was again alongside Corgan, Iha and Chamberlain. 

The back-and-forth D'arcy and Billy had in the press and over social media earlier this year, regarding her claims of never really being asked to rejoin the band, were rather ugly. 

I won't recap this--or other instances of Corgan exasperating me onstage and off over the years--in any length here, but while my love of the Smashing Pumpkins music overrides my frequent frustration with Billy, the situation with D'arcy not being part of the tour seems odd at the very least.

But with this being my 20th Smashing Pumpkins concert (and 29th time seeing Billy Corgan onstage), that only two have been with D'arcy Wretzky means I can't really be too nostalgic about "the original foursome." 

So having said all this, I won't be. 

Instead, from here on out, I will simply review the show that was performed, by "Smashing Pumpkins," consisting of Billy Corgan, James Iha, Jimmy Chamberlain, guitarist Jeff Schroeder (who's played in all the post-2007 incarnations), bassist Jack Bates and keyboardist Katie Cole. 

Even from my perch in the very last row of the top level of the UC, the band sounded fantastic. 

Corgan's voice was strong, and all the songs I love--"Zero," "Mayonnaise," "Tonight, Tonight," "Today," "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "Siva," "Muzzle" and more--were played as well as I could have wanted. (See the setlist here.)

There was a decent opening set from Metric, and the Smashing Pumpkins played for over 3 hours, so for a $29 ticket, I certainly got my money--and my memories--worth.

With a seemingly self-imposed gag order, Corgan--who at the end noted, "It's better when I don't talk"--let his songs do the talking, with some stage patter and band introductions left up to the much more reserved Iha. 

While this kept Billy from going on any long harangues as at shows past, his lack of even a perfunctory "It's nice to be home," lessened the sense of connection or occasion. 

The music was great, the setlist was stacked--Corgan has been begrudging in this regard in the past--and there was really no outright ridiculousness as has marred several prior Smashing Pumpkins concerts. 

But there was some weirdness. 

This is supposed to be the Smashing Pumpkins' big reunion tour, so it seemed odd when Corgan took the stage by himself. While his rendition of "Disarm" gave me goosebumps, the backdrop featuring photos from his own childhood, sans any pix of the band or other members' youth, didn't seem right.

The show should've started by blasting through "Zero," which came a few songs in. 

Wretzky not being onstage lessened some of the band's visual panache--with Bates, the son of Joy Division/New Order's Peter Hook, blending into the background--and her visage was even edited out of all nostalgic band videos shown onscreen. 

This would have been strange enough, but many of the videos and images featured a blonde woman who at the very least reminded of D'arcy. 

So her absence hung over the whole affair, even as the music delighted (with Cole filling in when female harmonies were needed).

But even in terms of the music, while I didn't hear anything I didn't like and don't mind long concerts, 45 minutes fewer would probably have made for a better show. 

Adore's "For Martha" and "To Sheila," with Corgan on a piano hovering above the band, were each beautiful, but one would have sufficed, especially coming back-to-back. 

In the show's home stretch, past the 2-1/2 hour mark, Machina album cut "Try, Try, Try" added little but time--though it's not a bad song--and a laborious "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning" wasn't needed either. 

After a blitz through "Hummer," "Today" and "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," it was nice to see Corgan joshing with Iha prior to "Muzzle"--there hadn't been much obvious interaction to that point--and I liked how Billy chided fans leaving early by referencing the chagrin of those who had done so at the Cubs walkoff win the night before (at which the Smashing Pumpkins sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"). 

The band's only new song released to date, "Solara," sounded swell as an encore, but instead of following their newest song with a blast through "I Am One"--the first song on their first album--an odd cover called "Baby Mine" ended the show. 

It could be seen as a nifty nod to Corgan's sense of theatricality, but also bespoke a show that seemed far too scripted, with no room for variance from prior tour stop sets, even in the band's hometown.

At any concert, nothing truly matters to me more than the music, and--with the Smashing Pumpkins' catalog one of my most cherished--I heard much that I loved.

I'm not sure if covers of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" or
Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" added greatly to the festivities, but all are great songs, rendered nicely here.

I would've liked to have heard the instrumental "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" lead into "Tonight, Tonight" as on the landmark album, but musically speaking, my complaints are minimal.

But the best concerts also include a healthy dose of warmth, connection, fun and surprise, and in these regards the Shiny and Oh So Bright tour didn't delight on par with the Foo Fighters' recent show at Wrigley--though I like the Pumpkins' songbook considerably more--or my hopes for Pearl Jam this weekend.

Even compared to a similarly pre-planned Depeche Mode concert featuring many video accoutrements--which I likewise saw from the UC nosebleeds--the Pumpkins circa 2018 weren't quite as Smashing.

Still, it's nice to have them back.

At least, mostly.

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