Sunday, October 21, 2012

Smashing Pumpkins Reward the Faithful, After Testing Their Patience -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Smashing Pumpkins
w/ opening act Anberlin
Allstate Arena, Rosemont, IL
October 19, 2012

Although I think Billy Corgan's penchant for petulantly confounding--and even alienating--fans has substantially contributed to the diminished popularity of the Smashing Pumpkins, I can't help but to somewhat feel his pain.

While the Pumpkins are now in their 7th incarnation (8 including Zwan), with Corgan the only original member, on the heels of a strongly-reviewed new album, Oceania--even if I don't quite love it--their first hometown arena show in many a year should've been quite a triumph.

But at the same arena the Pumpkins sold out three times at the height of their fame in 1996--albeit after the tragedy that began to derail it--only a quarter of the seats were sold, plus a general admission main floor.

Due to the stage being set close to center ice and no tickets being sold for the 200 level, I believe the show was officially termed a sellout. In this age, being a band that sells 4,000 tickets is no tragedy--and isn't far from what other '90s alt rock heroes like Soundgarden and Weezer drew to their most recent Chicago area shows.

Yet on my way into the Allstate Arena, I noticed--and imagine Billy may have as well--that this week Justin Bieber is playing two shows there, both of which have long been completely sold out.

Say what you want about Corgan--and believe me, I have--but the guy has written some of the greatest songs of the past 20 years, and based on my scant familiarity with the musical prowess (or lack thereof) of Bieber, I feel it fair to suggest that Billy has more talent in his pinkie than young Justin has in his entire being. While I haven't heard Corgan directly diss Bieber, he does seem to whine about his influential band's growing irrelevance in the face of musical mediocrity.

This is a somewhat justified gripe, even if Billy can come off untoward in making it.

The only rebuttal I'd have is that I imagine Bieber is more forthright in giving his fans what they want in a concert setting. Hence, my first sentence of this post.

While at Friday night's show, Corgan was gracious is his on-stage banter, rather than openly antagonistic as at shows in the past, and the crowd was wildly enthusiastic (and presumably largely comprised of rather avid Pumpkinheads), Billy once again made the show a good bit more challenging than it needed to be.

As I referenced earlier, Oceania enjoyed some good critical press upon its June release. As my review of it indicated, I think it is worthwhile but not fantastic, and a step below the best of the Pumpkins exalted past.

But I didn't need to hear it played live in full, for the concert's first 70 minutes.

I am certainly not advocating a full greatest hits set, although when--after Oceania and a cover of Bowie's "Space Oddity"--the Pumpkins launched into, among others, "Disarm," "Tonight Tonight," "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "Zero," "Cherub Rock" and "Mayonnaise," all sounded glorious. (See Friday's full setlist on

But I'm not sure why Billy--who I can't accuse of taking the easy way out--couldn't just build a setlist around, say, six Oceania songs, a selection of classics and some old album tracks (such as one he did play, "X.Y.U." from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness).

To his credit, over the course of 2-1/2 hours on Friday, Corgan avoided the long, angry vocal harangues (he did banter for a 10 minute stretch, but good naturedly) and over-indulgent extended feedback frenzies of old. The band--now filled out by second guitarist Jeff Schroeder, Nicole Fiorentino on bass (the latest in a string of pretty female bassists that Billy somehow digs up) and Mike Byrne on drums--sounded solid, even stellar, though Byrne isn't quite on par with former drummer Jimmy Chamberlain.

In fact, nothing that was played, even from the entirety of Oceania, sounded bad in itself. The live versions of several Oceania tracks (mainly from the disc's first half) made a good case for the new album being a bit stronger than I previously thought. And the great old songs sounded great.

It's just that the way the show was structured could have been considerably more satisfying.

Even the visual display featuring a huge orb onto which videos were projected (devised by Sean Evans, who has worked with Roger Waters) was impressive, but really not all that necessary.

I realize the contradiction of questioning why an artist who has impressively avoided conventionality can't put on a more conventional rock concert.

And the truth is, I've now seen Billy Corgan on stage 24 times (with seven different incarnations of the Smashing Pumpkins, plus Zwan and on his own) and I can't deny that at this point tracking the melodrama is part of the appeal.

But I just don't know why he goes to such an extent to make people scratch their heads.

I consider the Smashing Pumpkins the 5th best alternative rock band of the past 25 years, and among my 15 favorite rock artists of all time. Although I feel that at this point, Billy might be better off writing film scores and/or composing musicals--both of which he should be great at--while indulging his love of wrestling (he runs Resistance Pro Wrestling), tea (he owns Madame Zuzu's tea house in Highland Park) and poetry, I'll forever love the great Pumpkins music of old--and some of relatively new--enough to pay attention to whatever he does next.

Despite it all, I remain a fan of Corgan and the Pumpkins of whatever makeup, and ultimately found Friday's concert thrilling enough to be well worth seeing (once he got around to playing some self-described "classics").

I just wish Billy didn't have to make things so difficult. As such, what could have been an absolutely phenomenal concert throughout was only partially Smashing.

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